Khartoum: Sudan will withdraw from Darfur peace talks in Doha and organise its own negotiations if no accord with the rebels is reached imminently, President Omar al-Bashir said, prompting an angry response from one rebel group.
"If we reach an agreement tomorrow, praise be to God. But if there is no agreement, we will withdraw our negotiating team and the talks will then be held in Darfur," Bashir told thousands of supporters in Nyala.
"We will fight those who choose to take up arms, but we will sit next to those who want development," he added in a speech broadcast live on state television from the South Darfur capital.
Sudanese officials had earlier set December 31 as the deadline for a Darfur peace accord, with a referendum on independence for the south, now just 11 days away, due to dominate the Khartoum government`s agenda next month.
Bashir`s special adviser on Darfur, Ghazi Salaheddine, was expected in the Qatari capital on Wednesday to push the talks, according to Sudan`s official SUNA news agency.
But the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), the most heavily-armed Darfur rebel group, slammed Bashir`s speech, calling it "a declaration of war”.
"We condemn Bashir`s speech today and we consider it a declaration of a new war," JEM spokesman Ahmed Hussein Adam said.
"It undermines the efforts of the international community and of the mediation to resolve this conflict through political means," Adam said.
"JEM is committed to reach a fair settlement of the conflict, which is why we are here in Doha... If the Sudan government leaves Doha, we cannot have an agreement with ourselves."
The Khartoum government has for months been trying to secure a comprehensive peace agreement with all Darfur rebel groups, to no avail.
Earlier in December, JEM resumed talks with the government aimed at reaching a ceasefire, while the Liberty and Justice Movement (LJM), an alliance of rebel splinter factions, was expected to finalise a peace deal with Khartoum in mid-December after agreeing a ceasefire in March. But the accord was never signed.
Deadly violence in Sudan`s war-torn western region since December 10 has displaced around 32,000 people, according to UN estimates.
"These clashes are deplorable and demonstrate the importance of a ceasefire... If the violence escalates, the general atmosphere in the negotiations will deteriorate," Djibril Bassole, the UN-African Union chief peace negotiator for Darfur, said on Tuesday.
Bassole said he would try to persuade the different parties not to abandon the peace process, even if an agreement was not reached in the coming days.
"I am among those who want a swift and satisfactory solution. But mediation by someone with a stopwatch in his hand is not good mediation," he added.
Darfur has been gripped by a civil war since 2003 that has killed 300,000 people and displaced another 2.7 million, according to UN figures. Khartoum says 10,000 people have died in the conflict.