Sudan rebel leader calls Khartoum back to talks

NAIROBI
Jan 16 (Reuters)

The leader of Sudan's main rebel movement said on Thursday he remained committed to peace and urged the international community to pressure Khartoum to return quickly to the negotiating table.

Peace talks between rebels and the government were due to resume on Wednesday after a Christmas break, but Khartoum decided not to send a delegation saying it was not happy with the agenda or arrangements for the meeting.

John Garang, leader of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), said his movement was ready to restart talks to end the 19-year war as soon as the government could sort out its differences with mediators.

"From our side the talks are on," he told a rare news conference outside SPLA offices in the plush Nairobi district of Lavington. "Our delegation is here, we will wait until the government delegation comes."

The SPLA, based in southern Sudan which is largely animist with some Christians and Muslims, has been fighting the Islamic government in the north since 1983. The conflict has killed around two million people.

Analysts say the current Kenyan-led negotiations offer the best chance for peace, but warn talks are at a critical stage.

In the first two phases last year, the belligerents made considerable progress, agreeing on a temporary ceasefire until March 31, and to let the south hold a referendum on independence after a six-year transition.

Though both sides say they are eager to continue discussing difficult issues like sharing power and wealth, Khartoum was unhappy with the decision by mediators to put three disputed areas on the agenda for Wednesday's talks.

The government says it will discuss the status of Abyei, Nuba, and Southern Blue Nile -- which both parties claim are affiliated to them -- but said a different forum was needed to do so, given that geographically the regions lie in the north.

MORE COMPROMISE NEEDED

Garang said the SPLA had made many concessions during the six months of negotiations, and urged the government to do the same, warning that Khartoum's reluctance to do so could cost Africa's biggest country its best chance for peace.

"To make peace means to change your bottom line positions, the positions that came with you to the negotiations," he said.

"Khartoum needs to appreciate that and the international community needs to bring pressure on Khartoum that they cannot have peace without change in their structures."

The rebel leader also accused the government of repeatedly breaking the truce. He said helicopter gunships were on the offensive around Tam in western Upper Nile, a region rich in the oil which has stoked Sudan's conflict.

"As I speak the government is on the offensive in western Upper Nile this morning," he said. "They say these are militias fighting, but there are no militias in the world who have helicopter gunships."

"I believe Khartoum is trying to test the mediators, the observers and the international community."

There was no immediate comment from the government on the fighting around Tam, but there have been many reports of conflict in the region in recent weeks. Both sides have accused each other of breaking the ceasefire.