“The war in Darfur is over,” Sudan President Omar al-Bashir said on Wednesday in a speech in the war-torn region, adding that 57 members of a key rebel group, 50 on death row, had been freed.
Speaking in El-Fasher, the capital of North Darfur state, al-Bashir made the announcement a day after his government and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) signed a ceasefire and agreed to work towards a full peace agreement.
“The crisis in Darfur is finished; the war in Darfur is over. Darfur is now at peace,” he said of the seven-year conflict that devastated the region.
“The combat of arms is over, and the one of development now begins,” added al-Bashir, the subject of an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in Darfur.
“We need to make more efforts to develop Sudan and Darfur,” he said.
The prisoners freed on Wednesday represented half of JEM’s members in jail, Justice Minister AbdelBasit Sabdarat said outside Kober prison on the outskirts of Khartoum.
“Today we free 57 people: 50 had been condemned to death, five to prison terms and two who were being investigated,” he said.
In El-Fasher, al-Bashir confirmed the releases, saying: “We have just freed 50% of those detained” in connection with an unprecedented rebel attack on the capital’s twin city of Omdurman in May 2008.
The fighting resulted in the deaths of 220 people and the capture of a large number of rebels. Special courts later condemned 105 to death.
Al-Bashir had said the death sentences would be quashed and that 30% of JEM’s militants would be freed after the ceasefire deal, which was signed on Tuesday in Doha.
Sudan and the JEM, Darfur’s main rebel group, signed the agreement and a framework accord in the Qatari capital, with a final peace deal due to be signed by March 15.
Al-Bashir on Tuesday called the Doha agreement “an important step toward ending war and the conflict in Darfur”.
On Saturday, the government and JEM representatives inked a framework agreement in Chad proclaiming a “ceasefire” in the seven-year-old conflict.
The 12-point provisional deal offered the JEM, long seen as Darfur’s most heavily armed rebel group, a power-sharing role in Sudan, where presidential and legislative polls are due in April.
The two sides also agreed on Saturday that the JEM would become “a political party as soon as the final agreement is signed between the two parties” by March 15.
JEM leader Khalil Ibrahim on Wednesday again urged that the April elections be put back, however, saying that thousands of displaced people would be unable to vote.
“Our position is to ask for a delay in these elections because there are numerous citizens of Darfur and [the western states of North, South and West] Kordofan who will not be able to take part because they are displaced.”
However, North Darfur Governor Mohammed Yusif Kibir said: “A postponement of the election would plunge the whole country into darkness. Darfur is ready for the election.”
The Darfur conflict has claimed about 300 000 lives and displaced 2,7-million people, according to United Nations figures, since it erupted in February 2003. Khartoum puts the death toll at 10 000.
Ethnic minority rebels took up arms against Khartoum and state-backed Arab militias, demanding greater access to resources and power.
‘What peace is it?’
The conflict also saw a splintering into small factions of rebel groups, making efforts to seal lasting peace a massive task.
The ceasefire with the JEM closed the most active front in Darfur, but smaller rebel groups such as the Sudanese Liberation Army of France-based exile Abdelwahid Nur have refused to talk to Khartoum.
On Wednesday, Nur, who lives in France, blasted the truce.
“What peace is it? A ceremonial peace … a struggle to get government posts, but one not interested in fundamentals: guaranteeing the security of the population,” he told Agence France-Presse by telephone.
One of the smaller factions, the JEM-Democracy, also rejected the accord, calling it biased.
However, on Tuesday four of the smaller groups announced they were merging to form the Liberation Movement for Justice and also hoped to agree a deal with Khartoum. — Sapa-AFP