Release of 125 war prisoners by rebels raises hopes for peace in Sudan

President Yoweri Museveni meeting with released war prisoners previously held by SPLM-N rebels.

A Ugandan-backed initiative to secure the release of at least 125 Sudanese prisoners held by SPLM-N rebels is being hailed as step toward peace in the country.

Sudan’s southern regions of Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains erupted in rebellion in 2011. Multiple rounds of peace talks failed to bring a solution but dry season fighting and bombings were less this year after declarations of a ceasefire.

SPLM-N rebels and the Sudanese government announced the prisoners’ release on Sunday, March 5th, after “quiet talks” facilitated by Uganda.

President Yoweri Museveni said upon release of the war prisoners, “I thank Gen Omar al-Bashir for allowing me to facilitate quiet talks between SPLM (North) and other fighting groups in Darfur. During this dialogue I learnt that SPLM (North) was holding prisoners from Sudan. We agreed that they release them as a sign of goodwill.”

Museveni has visited Sudan twice in the last two years as the two countries seek to repair relations damaged by decades of tensions and hostility. His government continues to maintain ties with longtime allies in the SPLM-N as well, but is now using its position to forge middle ground between the warring parties.

Uganda’s government says it facilitated the release of 131 prisoners of war although the Red Cross puts the number at 125.

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According to an announcement by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the group transported the released prisoners from two locations in South Sudan to Entebbe in Uganda and onward to Sudan, where they were handed over to government officials in Khartoum. “The operation followed a request by the authorities in Kampala, Khartoum and Juba, and the SPLM-N, with agreement by all those involved,” the Red Cross explained.

ICRC’s head of delegation in Sudan Gérard Peytrignet said, “We are very pleased that these people will finally return to their families. Acting as a neutral intermediary is central to our mandate, and we stand ready to provide this humanitarian service when asked by all those involved in a conflict.”

SPLM-N Secretary-General Yasir Arman thanked the Ugandan president “for his tremendous work securing the handover of PoWs and for his continued efforts to bring a just and lasting peace to Sudan.” He also asked Museveni to continue his “confidence-building initiative,” saying Museveni’s efforts complement those of the African Union mediation team.

A Sudanese civil society group based in the diaspora, Sudan Democracy First Group, hailed the release of the prisoners as a “goodwill operation” giving momentum for peace.

“We recognize this as a positive step towards achieving peace and stability in Sudan and value the impact of breaking the deadlock and turning towards hope. Thus we argue that similar and additional steps from all parties are needed, to pave the road to peace, through particularly addressing the humanitarian crisis and the violations of human rights,” the group wrote in a statement.

Sudan Democracy First Group recommended follow-up confidence-building steps including opening humanitarian access corridors and releasing all political prisoners held in Sudan.