Powerful Darfur rebel group freezes peace talks, accusing government of new military offensive

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Darfur's most powerful rebel group broke off peace talks Monday with Sudan's government, accusing it of carrying out a new military offensive in the western region.

The Justice and Equality Movement signed a cease-fire with the government in April and was taking part in talks aimed at finding a permanent political deal to end seven years of fighting.

The violence in Darfur has ebbed over the past year and the talks under the mediation of the Gulf nation of Qatar are aimed at reaching a deal on the sharing of power and resources.

The fighting began with a 2003 rebellion by groups accusing the government of neglecting the vast desert region. An estimated 300,000 people lost their lives to violence, disease and displacement.

Rebel negotiator Ahmed Tugod said the Justice and Equality Movement was freezing the talks to protest what it says are government cease-fire violations that have included airstrikes and attacks by ground troops over the past week.

He said the rebel negotiating team was not closing the door entirely on the peace effort and would remain in the Qatari capital, Doha.

"Because the governmental regime insists on using military force to solve the security problem in Darfur ... the Justice and Equality Movement has decided to freeze its participation in its talks in Doha as long as the situation remains this way on the ground," the group said in a statement.

Tugod said Sudan's military has carried out strikes by land and air on four towns under the rebel group's control in southern Darfur.

Army spokesman Sawarmy Khaled denied there had been any military activity in southern Darfur, and the government has not commented on the rebel group's decision to halt the talks.

Several other smaller rebel factions grouped in a new umbrella organization have also signed a cease-fire with the government this year, but other groups of fighters have held out, demanding that the government disband its own allied militia first.

One of the central issues yet to be resolved in negotiations is the fate of those displaced, many of whom are still living in camps.

Sudan's elections last month were supposed to go toward healing the conflict, though rebels urged voters to boycott the voting. President Omar al-Bashir won re-election despite being charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity by an international court for atrocities committed in the Darfur conflict.

There were also reports of violence over the weekend in northern Darfur, in the city of El Fasher.

Police clashed with protesters who took to the streets on Sunday after the collapse of an investment scheme. Three people were killed, police said.

The protesters, who were demanding their money, besieged strategic locations in the city, prompting police to use tear gas and batons to clear the crowds, said police Gen. Abdul-Rahman al-Tayeb, according to Sudan's official news agency.

Police accused rebels of spurring the protesters to generate unrest in the area.