Sudanese armed forces have reestablished control in two towns in the country's western Darfur region following clashes with rebels. Negotiations between the government and rebels continued in Qatar, with the rebels announcing they would release Sudanese prisoners.

The towns of Kornoi and Umm Baru, which lie 50 km apart in North Darfur, near Sudan's border with Chad, and which both hold military bases, have recently been the site of repeated clashes between government soldiers and the Justice and Equality Movement, the Darfur region's most powerful insurgent group.

The rebels captured Kornoi two weeks ago and said they captured Umm Baru as well in fighting last weekend.  The government said 20 soldiers and over 40 rebels were killed in clashes around Umm Baru but that it never lost control of the town.

Both sides now say that government forces control both locations. A Justice and Equality Movement official, Abdullahi Osman el-Tom, speaking to VOA from Ireland, said the rebels withdrew voluntarily in order to safeguard civilians.

 "The government has reoccupied Kornoi and Umm Baru. JEM had captured them and then withdrew because if they were to stay there then the people would be bombarded by air," he said.

The rebels said government forces have conducted heavy bombing in the area for the past ten days.

Meanwhile, U.N.-backed negotiations between the Justice and Equality Movement and the Sudanese government resumed this week in Doha, Qatar.

The rebels have announced the release of 60 prisoners from the Sudanese army.

"What we are trying to do is simply to build goodwill between the two sides. We wanted the government simply to realize that yes we are serious, we are positive, and we want to move forward," said.el-Tom

Rebels said the prisoner release would be coordinated with the Red Cross.  Prisoner exchanges were a key component of a goodwill agreement signed between the two sides last year, but there has been little progress in implementing that deal. The current negotiations are also at the level of confidence-building, and are not yet tackling the possibility of a ceasefire.

Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir is in Libya for a regional summit that is expected to discuss relations between Chad and Sudan. Sudan says the Chadian government supports the Justice and Equality Movement, while Chad accuses Sudan of backing Chadian rebels. Chad has bombed suspected rebel positions inside Sudan in recent weeks.  

President Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes, but he has made several previous trips abroad to friendly countries, including Libya.