ANALYSIS: Peace still elusive as Sudan backs new proposals

July 5 (Reuters)

Sudan's acceptance of a new African peace plan is no major breakthrough, but a welcome step on a long road towards ending 18 years of civil war.

The Khartoum government said on Wednesday that it backed the Egyptian-Libyan agenda which has also been accepted -- albeit with reservations -- by all key opposition groups, including southern rebels.

"For the first time in many years, a peace proposal has not been rejected by any side in the conflict in Sudan. This is a sign that peace is on its way," one Sudanese politician said.

But Sudan watchers say that, while the government backing is a notable development, it means little unless all parties and rebel groups can overcome their reservations and agree to peace talks. Analysts say that, although the parties said "yes" to the plan, the "but" came hard on its heels.

The main stumbling block presented by the plan is that it leaves out the key southern demand for self-determination, which the government fears could lead to secession. And while it calls for recognition of religious diversity, it falls short of a southern demand for the separation of religion and state.

"We don't expect the guns to fall silent because of this plan," one Western diplomat in Khartoum said.

"Without a move towards actual negotiations, the government acceptance is an interesting development, but little more," said a Khartoum-based analyst who declined to be named.

Since 1983, rebels from the mostly animist or Christian south have been fighting the government in the Islamic, Arab north for greater autonomy. Millions have died from war, disease and starvation.


Several peace initiatives have tried and failed to end the bloodshed in Africa's largest country. Most prominently, the regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development has hosted several rounds of peace talks, but has made scant progress.

Analysts say cultural, political and religious divisions between the north and south run deep, adding that the discovery of oil in the south has added another bone of contention.

"It is notoriously difficult to mount any serious effort towards a peace settlement in Sudan. Egypt and Libya have achieved the first step: the acceptance in principle of a document that all parties consider a basis upon which they can move forward," a diplomat in Khartoum said.

"The key thing will be whether they can move to the next step, which is to get all parties around the negotiating table to take this process forwards," he added.

Both the government and opposition have said it is now up to Egypt and Libya to win unconditional backing and bring all parties to peace talks -- which analysts agree is a tall order.

Many say winning full support of the Southern People's Liberation Army, the main rebel group in southern Sudan, would be the touchstone of success.

The SPLA accepted the plan in principle but said it had submitted suggestions on how it could be improved, primarily by including self-determination and a clear division of religion and state.

"If the SPLA is brought on board, we will have an agreement and an end to the war," one political analyst in Khartoum said.

But some critics argue that peace is still far off, and see the government's acceptance of the plan as nothing but a sham.

"This is a trick to make themselves look good. Accepting the initiative is a way of making it look as though they are pursuing peace. In fact, it allows them to further the war," said Kuel Jok, a Sudanese researcher at the American University in Cairo.