Sudan's government and rebels from the war-ravaged Darfur region agreed to sit down for face-to-face talks Monday, after a week of bickering that had put discussions on hold.
The sixth round of peace talks on Darfur were officially launched in mid-September but, since then, government and rebel negotiators in Nigeria's capital have not held any direct discussions.
Instead, they attended several days of seminars on peace negotiating and then waited as Darfur's main rebel group argued about the makeup of its delegation. The dispute between factions of the Sudan Liberation Army is still unresolved, but the African Union's chief mediator for Darfur, Salim Ahmed Salim, said talks on power-sharing in Darfur would begin Monday.
Since the negotiating teams arrived in Abuja, officials say the situation in Darfur has become much worse.
Baba Gana Kingibe, the chief African Union envoy to Sudan, said Saturday that Sudanese government forces attacked civilians in several areas of Darfur, committing acts of "calculated and wanton destruction" that have killed at least 44 people and displaced thousands more during the past two weeks.
He also blamed the Sudan Liberation Army, for launching attacks on two occasions.
Salim said he could not understand "the killing of innocent civilians ... and the destruction of homes and the social fabric of communities in Darfur, when the major protagonists are all here in Abuja" to discuss peace.
The Sudanese government denied the African Union allegations Monday.
"The information reported by Kingibe is incorrect, totally untrue and was obtained from the relief agencies, therefore Kingibe is considered an partial person and unworthy for this mission," Gen. al-Abbas Abdul-Rahman Khalifa, the Sudanese armed forces spokesman, said in a statement.
After decades of low-level clashes over land and water pitting nomads and villagers against one another in Darfur, rebels from ethnic African tribes launched a large-scale conflict in early 2003, accusing the Arab-dominated central government of neglect.
The central government is accused of responding by unleashing Arab tribal militias known as Janjaweed to murder and rape civilians and lay waste to villages.
More than 180,000 people have died in Darfur and another 2 million people have been displaced in the fighting, AP reported.
Rescuers found the pilot of one of the two Su-34 fighters that had collided in midair in the Far East on January 18