Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir announced on Monday he will release all political prisoners, a move welcomed by the opposition as tensions ease with South Sudan.
“Today, we announce a decision to free all the political prisoners and renew our commitment to all political powers about dialogue,” Bashir said in a speech opening a new session of parliament.
“We confirm we will continue our communication with all political and social powers without excluding anyone, including those who are armed, for a national dialogue which will bring a solution to all the issues," the president said.
The opposition reacts
Farouk Abu Issa, who heads the opposition alliance of more than 20 parties, said Bashir's announcement was “a step toward genuine dialogue.”
He said the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), which has been fighting government forces for almost two years in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states, had been demanding a prisoner release.
“Very good news,” said Farouk Mohammed Ibrahim, of the Sudanese Organization for Defense of Rights and Freedoms, a group of activists.
He said there are “a large number” of detainees in South Kordofan and Blue Nile. These include 118 SPLM-N prisoners whose cases are being handled by his organization in southern Blue Nile alone.
“It's a step forward,” Ibrahim said.
But SPLM-N chairman Malik Agar declined comment on Bashir's announcement, saying he was "not sure which political prisoners he is referring to.”
Bashir's statement elaborated on an offer made last week by Vice President Ali Osman Taha, who reached out to the SPLM-N and opposition political parties, whom he invited to join a constitutional dialogue.
Sudan needs a new constitution to replace the 2005 document based on a peace agreement which ended a 23-year civil war and led to South Sudan's separation in July 2011.
Bashir's regime had long rejected negotiations with the insurgents.
In a written message to AFP on Monday, Agar reiterated that the rebels want talks on the basis of UN Security Council Resolution 2046, “full stop.”
The resolution, passed in May last year, called for an end to fighting between Sudan and South Sudan along their disputed frontier and demanded talks to settle outstanding issues including the war between Khartoum and the SPLM-N.
Negotiations should occur on the basis of a deal which the SPLM-N signed in June 2011 with Bashir's assistant Nafie Ali Nafie, the U.N. said.
That agreement, which was not implemented, recognized the SPLM-N as a legal political party.
It committed the SPLM-N and the Islamist government to a “political partnership” in the two states and a national vision that recognized the country's diversity.
Last week, Agar said the government had been misleading by mooting negotiations under the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement which ended Sudan's civil war.
The CPA led to South Sudan's independence after an overwhelming vote in a referendum.
South Kordofan and Blue Nile both have large non-Arab communities and were accorded special status under the CPA, which said they would have “popular consultations” as well.
"The popular consultation got buried with the end of the CPA," Agar said.
South Sudan armed and trained SPLM-N when it was part of the South’s rebel force but says it cut military ties before the South's independence.
Khartoum's accusation that the South continued to back SPLM-N in South Kordofan and Blue Nile was the major impediment to improved bilateral relations with the government in Juba.
In early March the two countries finally settled on detailed timetables to ease tensions, after months of intermittent border clashes, by resuming economically vital oil flows and implementing other key pacts including a demilitarized border zone designed to cut cross-border rebel support.
An estimated one million people have been affected by the fighting inside South Kordofan and Blue Nile.