updated 11/1/2007 9:05:08 PM ET 2007-11-02T01:05:08

Negotiations between the Sudanese government and Darfur rebels have been postponed until December, the spokesman for the government delegation to the stalled peace talks said Thursday.

The highly anticipated U.N.- and African Union-brokered talks opened Saturday in the Libyan coastal town of Sirte with a large international and media presence but without the most prominent rebel leaders. Their absence effectively stalled the talks within a day of the opening ceremony.

Mediators later said they were sending envoys to Darfur to smooth out problems with some of the recalcitrant rebel chiefs to get them to join the talks — a process Jan Eliasson, the U.N. chief mediator, said could take about three weeks.

The Sudanese chief envoy, Nafie Ali Nafie, initially said any postponement to include absent rebel chiefs would be “unacceptable.” But Khartoum’s delegation appeared to change views Thursday.

“Direct negotiations between the government and the armed movements in Darfur (will) begin next December,” spokesman Abu Zaid al-Hassan was quoted as saying from Sirte by the official Sudanese SUNA news agency.

Darfur’s main rebel chiefs said they were boycotting the talks because the U.N. and AU mediators had invited lesser groups to attend, claiming these groups were government stooges set up to weaken the rebellion’s positions.

There are more than a dozen splinter rebel factions. In an interview with The Associated Press earlier this week, Eliasson compared bringing the rebels together to “herding cats.”

The mediators say they invited all rebel groups so that talks were as inclusive possible to try to end more than four years of fighting that have killed more than 200,000 people and chased 2.5 million from their homes.

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