By Andrew Heavens
KHARTOUM, Feb 21 (Reuters) - Sudan’s army clashed with Darfur’s rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) hours before both sides agreed a ceasefire and signed an agreement paving the way to peace talks, rebels and a U.N. source said on Sunday.
JEM said it fought off an attack from Sudan’s army between the areas of Sirba and Seleia in West Darfur on Saturday afternoon. Sudan’s army dismissed the report as "absolutely wrong" saying it had not taken part in any attack.
Any afternoon fighting would not have broken the terms of the Sudan/JEM ceasefire announced in Chadian capital N’Djamena on Saturday evening, but would underline the challenges facing efforts to end the conflict.
Leaders from both sides are due to ratify the ceasefire and "framework agreement" setting the terms for negotiations in Qatari capital Doha on Tuesday, and have promised to reach a final peace deal by March 15.
It was difficult to get more detailed confirmation of Saturday’s reported fighting as international sources in West Darfur said government forces had closed roads in the area.
A U.N. source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there were clashes involving JEM and Sudan’s army in the area on Saturday, but could not confirm who attacked or won.
A second international source said there were reports it was JEM that attacked the army in the area about 55km (34 miles) north of the capital of West Darfur El Geneina.
Fighting has intensified in the run up to past ceasefires and negotiations on Darfur as warring parties try to maximise territorial gains ahead of settlements.
The Darfur conflict flared in 2003 when JEM and the rebel Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) took up arms against the government, accusing it of neglecting the region. SLA founder Abdel Wahed Mohamed el-Nur is still refusing to talk with Khartoum.
"The government troops attacked our forces just after midday," JEM field commander Abubakr Hamid Nur told Reuters, saying he was speaking from Darfur by satellite phone. "It is unbelievable. While they were sitting down with us in N’Djamena, they were attacking us in Darfur."
JEM spokesman Ahmed Hussein Adam said the rebel force regretted the incident but said it could have been caused by a breakdown in communication between Sudan’s negotiators and their forces in the field. "This is something we can put behind us. Everyone here wants to enter into the new spirit." He said the fighting ended before the deal was signed.
A spokesman for Sudan’s army dismissed JEM’s report outright, telling Reuters: "This story is absolutely wrong. Sudanese army didn’t attack this area alone or with other forces. This is wrong absolutely."
JEM officials on Saturday said the "framework" agreement would include a list of areas to be fleshed out in negotiations, including compensation for Darfuris, humanitarian access and the broad topics of "power sharing" and "wealth sharing".
Sudanese presidential advisor Ghazi Salaheddin, who reached the deal in Chad, told reporters on Saturday the ceasefire came into effect the moment it was signed.
"Hopefully we have surpassed the military phase of the problem. We are now facing new challenges — the challenges of development, of resettlement of IDPs (internally displaced people), return of refugees, rehabilitating, reconciliation. These are the main challenges." (Editing by Myra MacDonald)