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U.S. Asks Sudan to Resume Talks

Africa: A State Department official says he got assurances that a break in the peace negotiations with the rebels is temporary.

September 04, 2002|DAVAN MAHARAJ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NAIROBI, Kenya — The United States urged Sudan on Tuesday to resume much-heralded peace talks, even as the African nation's leader ordered his generals to launch an offensive against rebels who have seized a key garrison town.

President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir broke off the talks this week after the main guerrilla group, the Sudan People's Liberation Army, captured the southern town of Torit, about 70 miles southeast of the Nile River port of Juba.

Bashir recalled more than 50 members of a peace delegation who were meeting near Nairobi, Kenya's capital, with rebel leaders to negotiate an end to Sudan's 19-year-old civil war. He accused the SPLA of violating earlier agreements by attacking government-controlled areas.

"Take every path and use all weapons," a government-owned newspaper quoted Bashir as telling his military.

However, Walter Kansteiner, the U.S. assistant secretary of State for African affairs, met with both sides here Tuesday and said there was "enough of a commitment from both parties for talks to make real progress." He said the Sudanese government assured him the disruption in talks was only temporary.

"Both parties reconfirmed that there is no possibility of a military victory for either side," Kansteiner said. "A negotiated settlement is the only answer. But to get there, both sides need to be at the negotiating table."

Several analysts agreed Tuesday, dismissing the government's action as gamesmanship and saying it was only a matter of time before its negotiators returned to Machakos, a small agricultural town in Kenya where the talks were being held.

"This is merely an opportunistic move by some government officials to delay the talks," said John Prendergast, a member of the White House National Security Council during the Clinton administration. "They think the talks are going too far too fast, and they need to pull back and slow it down."

The Sudanese conflict pits the Muslim-dominated government in the north against rebels seeking autonomy for people practicing Christianity and traditional African religions in the south.

The government came under intense criticism from some Islamist hard-liners after agreeing in July to a rebel demand that Islamic law not be enforced in the south. In what was widely hailed as a breakthrough, the government also agreed that southerners would hold a referendum--six years after a final peace deal--to decide whether to secede.

The agreement on two of the most contentious issues surprised many analysts and drew predictions that both parties were nearing a comprehensive peace accord. Even former Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), President Bush's special peace envoy to Sudan, predicted during a stopover in Nairobi two weeks ago that a written deal would be reached by year's end.

The U.S., Britain, Norway and several of Sudan's African neighbors have been pushing both sides to end the war, which has killed an estimated 2 million people and caused millions more to flee their homes.

The recent discovery of oil in southern Sudan has complicated matters, with the Bashir government clearing thousands of southern villagers from their homes to make the area safe for Asian and European oil companies. The regime has used oil money to buy helicopter gunships and other sophisticated weapons.

Despite the interim agreements, fierce fighting continues in southern Sudan in the absence of a cease-fire.

Cease-fire talks were expected to begin later this week, according to Lazaro Sumbeiywo, a Kenyan army lieutenant general who is heading the peace talks. Negotiators also were scheduled to discuss how to share oil revenues and include rebel leaders in the central government.

Prendergast, a Sudan specialist with the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, said that by pulling out of the talks, the government was attempting to press its agenda of securing a cease-fire.

"They want an early cease-fire so they can start exploiting the oil and mineral resources in the south before other agreements are in place," he said.

Analysts have called on Bush to become more involved in the peace talks by telephoning participants, as U.S. leaders have done at times in the Middle East peace process.

But on Tuesday, Sumbeiywo said involving Bush was not yet necessary.

"We don't like to use big clubs when [we] can use twigs and sticks," he said.

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