Splintered Darfur rebels search for common ground

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JUBA, Sudan, Oct 15 (Reuters) Representatives of seven Darfur rebel groups net in south Sudan today to try to reach a common negotiating position ahead of peace talks with the government.

But huge doubts remain about whether Darfur's rapidly fracturing rebel groups will be able to agree on a joint set of grievances and negotiating points before they travel to Libya for the negotiations with Khartoum on October 27.

Even as the meeting got under way, rebels leaders said some fighters were shifting allegiances.

Organisers of the meeting in Juba, capital of south Sudan, said rebels would have up to five days to find common ground.

Some delegates in Juba told Reuters they were optimistic.

''We will not leave Juba unless we are reunited,'' said Tadjadine Bechir Niam, from a breakaway faction of the rebel Justice and Equality Movement. ''We are ready to give any concessions.'' A spokesman for the meeting's organisers, the South Sudan Darfur Taskforce, said they were hopeful the founder of the rebel Sudan Liberation Movement, Abdel Wahed Mohamed el-Nur, would attend.

El-Nur has so far refused to take part in any peace negotiations, demanding a string of concessions from Khartoum.

Mainly non-Arab rebels took up arms in 2003 in Darfur accusing the government of neglecting the remote western region. Khartoum mobilised mainly Arab militias to quell the revolt.

FACTIONS The sheer number of rebel groups vying for a place at the negotiating table has proved a headache for the United Nations and the African Union, the organisers of the Libyan talks.

The leader of the main branch of the rebel Justice and Equality Movement, Khalil Ibrahim, last week threatened to pull out of the peace process unless only two factions -- his own and a unified Sudan Liberation Army -- were allowed to take part.

The situation was further complicated by reports that a number of fighting units had agreed to leave their leaders and join the ''Unity'' faction of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA-Unity).

Suleiman Jamous, a leading figure in SLA-Unity, told Reuters: ''We are trying to get the Sudan Liberation Army back under one banner if possible. We are contacting field commanders across the region.'' He said fighting units previously loyal to other SLA faction leaders including el-Nur and Ahmed Abdel Shafie had joined the new unified group.

Jamous also claimed a number of defections from the SLA faction run by Minni Arcua Minnawi -- the only rebel leader to sign up to a failed peace agreement with Sudan in 2006.

Another leading member of SLA-Unity cast doubt on whether Sudan's government had the authority to go to Libya, following the withdrawal of its main coalition partner.

The southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement pulled its ministers from the government on Thursday in a dispute over the 2005 peace agreement on the separate north-south civil war.

Reuters SKB GC1755

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