* Border rebellion soured relations between Sudan and South
* Both countries agreed to withdraw troops from border zone
* SPLM-N members says still “too early to talk about peace” (Adds SPLM-N comment)
KHARTOUM/JUBA, March 20 (Reuters) - Sudan made its first offer to hold direct talks with rebels on its southern border with South Sudan on Wednesday.
The SPLM-North (SPLM-N) rebels operating in Sudan’s Blue Nile and South Kordofan states said the offer extended by Sudan Defence Minister Abdel Raheem Mohammed Hussein was “progress”, but that it was too early to talk about peace.
Hussein said Khartoum would be willing to have discussions with SPLM-N, providing the dialogue was based on protocols set out in a 2005 peace agreement with South Sudan.
“We are ready to meet with the northern sector (of the SPLM), on the condition that the dialogue and discussion is based on the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the protocol for the two areas as a reference,” Hussein told reporters at Khartoum’s airport on Wednesday.
Sudan has previously refused to meet the rebels and has accused South Sudan of backing the SPLM-N, a former ally of the SPLM whose decades-long war with Khartoum resulted in the 2005 peace deal and the secession of South Sudan in 2011.
The SPLM-N rebellion to overthrow the rule of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir began shortly after secession.
South Sudan denies backing the SPLM-N.
This month, the two countries agreed on a timeframe to withdraw troops from their disputed, roughly 2,000-km (1,200-mile) border, something they agreed to do in September but have failed to implement because of lingering tensions.
Neroun Phillip, a member of the SPLM-N negotiations team, told Reuters the breakthrough in talks between Sudan and South Sudan may have encouraged Khartoum to start talks with the rebel group.
He said earlier this month the African Union set an agenda for such talks including a cessation of hostilities to get humanitarian aid into the region as well as make security and political arrangements.
“For Khartoum to directly negotiate with the SPLM-N is progress but the difficulties will come in the details of the talks,” Phillip said.
“It’s too early to talk about peace until the parties sit and agree on some issues.”
Fighting in the two border states has forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes, and complicated ties between Sudan and South Sudan.
The withdrawal of troops from the border zone was seen as a vital first step to resuming southern oil exports through Sudan, which both countries depend on for revenue and foreign currency.
South Sudan shut off its roughly 350,000 barrel-a-day output in January last year in a dispute with Sudan over how much it should pay to send it through Sudanese pipelines to a Red Sea port.
Sudan’s north-south civil war was one of Africa’s longest and deadliest, killing some 2 million people. The war over oil, religion, ideology and identity devastated much of South Sudan and sucked in many of its neighbours. (Reporting by Hereward Holland; Writing by Alexander Dziadosz, editing by Paul Casciato)