S Sudan starts talks with renegade militia chief

* Southern officials start talks with rebel

* Violence seen as potential threat to referendum

KHARTOUM, Sept 23 (Reuters) – Southern Sudanese officials have started talks with a renegade militia commander who joined a rebellion that has threatened the stability of the region in the run up to a sensitive referendum, the south’s army said.

David Yauyau was one of at least three militia leaders who took up arms saying they had been cheated out of seats in April’s elections and accusing the south’s ruling party of corruption.

Sudan’s oil-producing south has long been plagued with well- armed militias and tribal violence. Analysts have warned that the latest outbreak could disrupt efforts to organise a referendum on whether the region should secede, due on Jan. 9 2011.

“The local authorities in Pibor county have started peace talks with David Yauyau … The initiative to reach a peaceful settlement came from him. Whether he is serious or not serious remains to be seen,” said southern army (SPLA) spokesman Kuol Deim Kuol.

Kuol said SPLA forces had been told not to attack Yauyau’s supporters in the south’s remote Jonglei state — where French group Total holds a largely unexplored oil concession — to avoid disrupting the discussions.

Yauyau, from the Murle tribe, told Reuters it was the local authorities who first approached him with a letter, but the contact had not yet turned into detailed negotiations.

“We have replied to them. This is the first step we have started with them. We have some burning issues to be amended,” he said. “If the letters continue to be positive, we can have some dialogue with them.”

Kuol said troops were still hunting for George Athor, a former SPLA general, and his supporters in Jonglei, but floods were hampering the search. Kuol said a third militia leader Galwak Gai was being treated for injuries in north Sudan.

Southern leaders have accused the north of backing the militias in a bid to disrupt the referendum and keep control of the south’s oil, a charge dismissed by Khartoum.

Athor told Reuters he was also interested in negotiating a settlement but was facing SPLA attacks, most recently in August.

The referendum was promised in a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of north-south civil war that was also marked by fighting between southern militias, often along tribal lines. Analysts say most southerners want independence. (Reporting by Andrew Heavens; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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