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Sudan's government and rebels in South Kordofan state said Wednesday they are ready to hold talks on ending their two-year war at a planned meeting in Ethiopia next week.
African Union (AU) mediator Thabo Mbeki sent rebel chairman Malik Agar an invitation "for peace talks in Addis Ababa on April 23", the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) said.
"We replied that we are ready," rebel spokesman Arnu Ngutulu Lodi told AFP, adding that his group will send a 15-member negotiating team.
A senior Sudanese ruling party official confirmed the talks have been set for next Tuesday.
"Up to now our government is fully committed to the time scheduled by the African Union," said Rabbie Abdelatti Ebaid of the National Congress Party.
If the two sides meet face-to-face it would be their first direct talks in almost two years, Lodi said.
The rebels and government met indirectly through AU mediators in a failed attempt to secure humanitarian access to the war zone.
Talk of peace, however, was accompanied by heavy fighting on Wednesday.
Rebels again shelled the state capital Kadugli, targeting what Lodi described as "military bases."
A Kadugli resident told AFP that one woman was reportedly killed in the mortar barrage on the area which was also targeted by rebels last Friday.
SPLM-N also shelled a military outpost east of the capital, hitting an ammunition storage facility which exploded, rebel spokesman Lodi said.
"Today there is heavy fighting around Dandor," a garrison about 18 kilometres (11 miles) east of Kadugli that government forces were trying to retake after rebels seized it on Monday, he added.
Army spokesman Sawarmi Khaled Saad told AFP his troops had "liberated" Dandor.
"In reaction to that, the rebels tried to create a disturbance in Kadugli, shelling the town," Saad said.
The top United Nations official in Sudan, Ali Al-Za'tari, welcomed the African Union's invitation for Sudan and the SPLM-N "to engage in direct talks in Addis Ababa".
He said the humanitarian situation should be at the top of their agenda.
More than 200,000 people have fled the war zone for South Sudan and Ethiopia as refugees, while an estimated one million more have been affected inside South Kordofan and Blue Nile, another state where the SPLM-N has been fighting.
A senior UN aid official has said people were surviving on "roots and leaves".
Last Friday's shelling of Kadugli killed three civilians, the government said, as President Omar al-Bashir visited South Sudan in a symbol of easing tensions between the neighbours, particularly over the South's alleged support for SPLM-N.
Khartoum had long rejected talks with the insurgents.
But on April 1, Bashir said his administration seeks a broad political dialogue, "including (with) those who are armed".
"If you put arms aside and come to the negotiating table, this is the route of negotiation," said the ruling party's Ebaid.
The government and rebels disagree about the framework for talks.
SPLM-N wants them under a UN Security Council resolution which said negotiations should occur on the basis of a June 2011 agreement.
That unimplemented pact committed the SPLM-N and the Islamist government to a "political partnership" in the two states and a national vision that recognised the country's diversity.
Ebaid said talks should focus only on South Kordofan and Blue Nile, "not the whole of Sudan."
Khartoum wants dialogue under the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) which led to South Sudan's independence two years ago after an overwhelming "yes" vote in a referendum.
The CPA said South Kordofan and Blue Nile would have "popular consultations" as well.