October 10, 2005

Darfur rebels free 36 hostages, still hold two -AU

By Opheera McDoom

KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Darfur rebel dissidents have released
36 African Union hostages but are still holding two more in the
western Sudanese region, an AU spokesman said on Monday.

The AU had blamed a dissident faction of the Justice and
Equality Movement (JEM) for the kidnappings. The faction denied
the accusations.

The AU said the faction first kidnapped a multi-national AU
ceasefire monitoring team on Sunday and then took the rescue
team in the Chadian-Sudanese border town of Tine.

AU spokesman Noureddine Mezni said the military head of the
AU mission had witnessed the release of 36 of the hostages.

"Thirty-six were released, two are missing and still with
this armed group -- the AU team leader and the translator,"
Mezni said. He added the AU vehicles were still with the group.

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

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

However, 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.


A sixth 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. It has faltered with
an escalation of violence on the ground.

Saleh was the military commander of JEM and signed a
much-violated Darfur ceasefire 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.

About 6,000 AU troops are deployed to monitor the ceasefire
but violence has escalated in recent weeks, prompting the
organization last week to voice its harshest public criticism
of Darfur rebels and the Sudanese government.

The AU suffered its first casualties on Saturday after more
than a year of operations in Darfur in an ambush blamed on
another Darfur rebel group.