Sudan foes open talks on disputed territories

NAIROBI
March 4 (AFP)

Representatives of Sudan's government and main rebel group began talks in Nairobi on Tuesday on the status of three regions claimed by both sides in a twenty-year-old civil war, an AFP journalist reported.

"The negotiations will be covering the conflict areas of Abyei, Southern Kordofan (also known as the Nuba Mountains), and the Blue Nile," chief mediator Lazarus Sumbeiywo said at the opening.

While Khartoum says it controls 90 percent of these territories, the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) claim to have been given a mandate to represent their populations.

These discussions, expected to last two weeks, are being held outside the format of wider peace negotiations that have already produced landmark accords.

Last July the government and the SPLA agreed during peace talks in the Kenyan town of Machakos that Sudan's south would enjoy autonomy for six years, after which a referendum would be held to decide the region's political future.

"Our position is clear that these areas (Abyei, Southern Kordofan and the Blue Nile) must be given the right to self-determination as well as being considered in the power-sharing process," rebel spokesman Samson Kwaje told AFP at the venue of the talks.

"It is also clear that we need the issue of religion and state, where the whole of southern Sudan must be exempted from the Islamic Sharia, discussed," he added.

The government delegation insisted that the three areas do not fall under the purview of peace negotiations between the two parties.

"The parties which signed the Machakos peace protocol agreed that the right to self-determination be given exclusively to southern Sudan and not any other region," said Ahmed Dirdeiry, the charge d'affaires in Sudan's embassy in Nairobi.

"We will mainly focus on how to bring coexistence between the south and north and not dwell on issues that are not on the original peace protocol," he added.

Any agreement resulting from the talks will be incorporated into the main peace process, the fourth round of which is set to resume in Nairobi later this month.

Sudan's civil war has pitted the Khartoum government, representing the mostly Islamic Arab north of the country, against the SPLM, based in the mainly Christian and animist south.