Diplomatic sources on Thursday said a reconciliation meeting has been in progress since Wednesday at Sirte in Libya among Sudanese officials, rebels and representatives of the African Union.

The conclave in Libya comes ahead of scheduled peace talks called by the African Union in the Nigerian capital of Abuja on 23 August.

"If this informal meeting ... makes it possible to prepare the ground for the 23 August meeting we could only applaud it," a diplomatic source said.

Libyan Foreign Minister Abd al-Rahman Shalgam said his government had requested the African Union some days ago for "an enlarged meeting" of all the parties with stakes in Darfur.

Guarded response

The response to the Libyan initiative has been guarded, however, with a Chadian diplomat saying his country feared that Libya was trying to hijack the mediation process.

"The Sirte meeting is informal and we are afraid the mediation process will be taken over by Libyan President Muammar Qadhafi at
the expense of the African Union"

Chadian diplomat

"The Sirte meeting is informal and we are afraid the mediation process will be taken over by Libyan President Muammar Qadhafi at the expense of the African Union," he said.

Meanwhile, representatives of Chad, the United Nations, Nigeria and the African Union have gathered in the Chadian capital N'djamena to prepare for the Abuja meeting.

Since the fighting broke out in Darfur in February 2003, Chad – which has taken in tens of thousands of refugees - has attempted to broker a peace deal.

One of the main rebel groups, the Justice and Equality Movement (MJE), has called for the postponement of the Abuja talks.

"We shall take part, but there is a small problem," said Col Bad Allah Adel Keri, a spokesman for the MJE. "Until 5 September, our diary is very busy".
 
The conflict in Darfur has claimed up to 50,000 lives and made thousands homeless, prompting the UN to declare it as the worst humanitarian disaster.