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Misdirection play?

International | SUDAN: Peace talks began last week to end Africa's longest-running civil war, but the Islamic government in Khartoum may be simply buying time to build its military might

Issue: "Arafat: The devil you know," Sept. 20, 2003

SUDANESE REBEL LEADER JOHN Garang put off combat fatigues in favor of a blue oxford button-down in another attempt to salvage aborted peace talks with the Islamic government in Khartoum.

The rebel leader traveled to Kenya earlier this month to meet for the first time with Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Taha at a secluded Rift Valley resort. Mr. Garang hoped to break the ice with Khartoum's No. 2 man before government and rebel leaders began an eighth round of peace talks on Sept. 10.

The high-level, one-on-one meeting took seasoned Western observers by surprise. "This is a new development and not one we expected," said Ben Parker, Nairobi-based spokesman for the UN Office of Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan.

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Since the talks commenced one year ago, Mr. Garang has become an expert at the hat-in-hand routine. Rebels have put forward multiple peace proposals only to have them denounced by Khartoum. For Mr. Garang, who has battled the government from grass-fenced garrisons for two decades in Africa's longest-running civil war, the overtures represent an interesting role reversal, with rebels cast as diplomats to Sudan's irascible and fractious official leaders.

"We have come fully prepared to resolve the issues," said Mr. Garang upon arrival at Nairobi's Wilson airport on Sept. 4. "We are under pressure from the Sudanese people; they want peace and we want peace."

By contrast, Sudanese President Omar Bashir's official comment on peace talks was to tell mediators in Kenya to "go to hell." He rejected the seventh round of peace proposals in July and told negotiators they should come up with a "reasonable alternative" or "dissolve the document in water and drink it."

In a graphic picture of just how bad Sudan's war has been, many believe the negotiations are on track despite the rhetoric. "In principle, they are not denying us access," said Mr. Parker. "We have had access to areas we have not had access to for years. Larger populations are receiving services from us than ever before."

The most immediate benefit of peace talks has been an agreement by Khartoum to grant "unimpeded access" to UN humanitarian efforts. In the past Khartoum regularly blocked UN flights to areas under rebel control (see "Blue Nile blackout," June 10, 2000). Last January it allowed UN flights into Blue Nile province, an area cut off from official UN relief aid (but accessed under the radar by several private and church-based aid groups) since rebels took control in 1996.

But Mr. Parker told WORLD that several "areas of insecurity remain," indicating that a full ceasefire is not in place. And private relief workers are warning that the government may be buying time with its poor behavior at the bargaining table to grab more territory before a final settlement is reached.

The rebels, who represent Christians and other non-Muslims in southern Sudan but also include Muslim factions, have supported the latest proposal-called the Nakuru Document. They say they are prepared to end the war if the government will guarantee religious freedom and local autonomy to areas of south Sudan outside Khartoum's control. Government leaders insist that is a prescription for secession.

"The Nakuru Document is based on the express assumption of putting unity on hold," said Sudan's ambassador to the United States, Khidir H. Ahmed. "That would undoubtedly pave the way for two separate entities at the end of the interim period." He said the arrangement would guarantee a "full monopoly" over the south by Mr. Garang's Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army, or SPLM/A.

Even before this month's round of talks began, Mr. Ahmed told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., that he believed the most recent proposals were "a deliberate attempt to sabotage the peace process."

But according to SPLM/A's U.S. representative, Steven Wondu, "The parties are not being asked to sign on the dotted line." He told the same Woodrow Wilson Center gathering that the Nakuru "draft is a guide for negotiating the last corner on the path to peace."

The rebels say they will consent to power-sharing with Islamic government leaders but say many more specifics must be resolved. They want an end to state-imposed Shariah, or Islamic law. President Bashir has said he wants to keep Shariah in the capital. Mr. Wondu said the rebels will insist on "a national capital that shall be a symbol of national unity."

He, along with many U.S. officials and private relief workers, believe Khartoum may not be as serious about a negotiated settlement as it appears. "Khartoum clearly favors processes that drag on forever while it builds its military capability in preparation for a decisive victory on the ground," said Mr. Wondu.

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