By Opheera McDoom
KHARTOUM, Aug 9 (Reuters) - Sudan said on Thursday it would lift a threat to arrest Darfur rebel figure Suleiman Jamous when peace talks start to end more than four years of conflict.
Jamous is seen as key to uniting fractured insurgents in Sudan’s remote west.
"When there are real talks for sure he will be set free," State Minister for Foreign Affairs Ali Karti told Reuters. He declined to say whether there would be conditions on his release.
Jamous has been virtually imprisoned in a U.N. hospital near Darfur for more than 13 months after the United Nations airlifted him there for medical treatment. Khartoum was not informed of the U.N. move and calls Jamous a criminal. It had said he would be arrested if he leaves U.N. care.
"At that time we will see if there are any conditions or if we don’t need to make any conditions. That is something to be considered at the right time," Karti said.
U.S. actress Mia Farrow this week offered her freedom to Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir in exchange for the elderly and respected Jamous, who as the rebel Sudan Liberation Army humanitarian coordinator helped the world’s largest aid operation get access to hundreds of thousands in need in the vast region.
Last week 11 prominent activists including South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke, former Czech President Vaclav Havel and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jody Williams asked Bashir to release Jamous.
The European Union called for an immediate ceasefire in Darfur and urged the Sudanese government and rebel groups to support an international peace process.
International experts estimate some 200,000 have died and 2.5 million driven from their homes in more than four years of revolt in Darfur. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued arrest warrants for a junior government minister and a militia leader accused of conspiring to commit war crimes.
Khartoum says the Western media has exaggerated the conflict and puts the death toll at 9,000. It says the ICC has no authority over Sudanese nationals.
Only one of three rebel negotiating factions signed a Darfur peace deal with Khartoum last year. Many Darfuris rejected the agreement and the insurgents have since split into more than a dozen factions.
U.N. Darfur envoy Jan Eliasson and his African Union counterpart Salim Ahmed Salim managed to get some rebel factions to sit together and come up with a common negotiating platform this month in Tanzania.
The factions said they wanted to hold peace talks with the government within three months. No date or venue has been fixed.
An EU statement on Thursday called the rebel agreement a crucial step towards final peace talks, and warned the EU would back consideration of unspecified measures against any party that obstructed the process.
Eliasson was in Darfur on Thursday, talking to Arab tribes and those in camps for the displaced to try to bring them on side.
"Arab tribes evidently feel that they have been neglected and that their voices are not heard," he said, adding they feared being targeted by a 26,000-strong joint UN/AU operation due to deploy to keep the peace over the coming year.
"I assured them, of course, that the whole principle of the United Nations operation is to bring about security for all in the area where we have responsibility," Eliasson said.
Karti welcomed the talks in Tanzania, saying there was hope that a political agreement could be reached, despite differences over the agenda. Rebels want to scrap last year’s deal whereas Khartoum wants to use it as a basis for new talks.
"Each side comes to the talks with different points of view and different positions for sure, but we are sure that we have some commonalities between us that we can begin with," he said.
Pekka Haavisto, Eliasson’s special aide, told reporters in Finland that negotiating a new deal would not be an easy task.
"The first answer (from the Sudanese government) is always no. The question is if there is a will to really reach a peace in Darfur," Haavisto said. "We have told them they would have to make compromises." (Additional reporting by Terhi Kinnunen in Helsinki and David Brunnstrom in Brussels)