October 10, 2005

Darfur rebels holding up to 40 AU monitors

By Opheera McDoom

KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Darfur rebels have kidnapped a rescue
team sent to secure the release of 18 African Union hostages in
the western Sudanese region, the AU said on Monday.

AU spokesman Noureddine Mezni said the rebel splinter group
was now holding up to 40 members of the AU ceasefire monitoring
team in the region.

Mezni had said the group released most of the 18-strong
multi-national monitoring team late on Sunday night and that
they were on their way back on foot to their camp in the
Sudanese-Chadian town of Tine.

"Now it seems the rescue team was caught also by the group
and the only one who was actually released was the Chadian
member of the team," Mezni told Reuters. "It seems they may be
holding around 40 now."

The rebel faction, which split from the Justice and
Equality Movement (JEM) leadership earlier this year, is
demanding a seat at peace talks in the Nigerian capital Abuja,
AU sources, who declined to be named, said.

The team, which AU officials said included a U.S. observer,
a JEM representative and other AU forces, was kidnapped on
Sunday. The U.S. embassy in Khartoum could not confirm the
presence of the U.S. observer.


A 6th round of AU-sponsored peace talks began last month
between the government and the two main Darfur rebel groups,
the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and JEM. They have faltered
with an escalation of violence on the ground.

An AU Commission spokesman in AU headquarters had blamed a
dissident faction of JEM for the kidnappings.

But the head of the JEM dissident faction, Mohamed Saleh,
told Reuters from Darfur he had not taken the AU hostages, even
though he has a base in the area near Tine.

"We want the AU to leave and we have warned them not to
travel to our areas," he said. "We don't know and don't care
what is happening to the AU, they are part of the conflict
now," he added.

Saleh was the military commander of JEM and signed the
much-maligned Darfur ceasefire, negotiated in April 2004. He
said he commanded thousands of troops in Darfur and would not
honor either the ceasefire or any agreement reached in Abuja.

"We went to Abuja and they refused to talk to us," he said.
"So now we will not talk to them."

Non-Arab rebels took up arms in Darfur in early 2003
accusing the government of neglect and of monopolizing power
and wealth. Tens of thousands have been killed and more than 2
million forced from their homes by the violence, which the
United States calls genocide.

Khartoum denies genocide, but the International Criminal
Court is investigating alleged war crimes in Darfur.