Sudan Cease-Fire Action Generates Little Enthusiasm

Davan Maharaj, Los Angeles Times

December 22, 2001

The announcement this week that Sudan had agreed to negotiate an internationally monitored cease-fire was supposed to be a significant step in ending a brutal civil war.

It marked the first positive response from the Sudanese government to conditions set by former U.S. Sen. John C. Danforth, President Bush's special envoy who is trying to bring an end to the country's 18 years of ethnic and religious warfare.

But the announcement was greeted with little enthusiasm as many Sudan watchers dismissed it as part of Khartoum's recent charm offensive. "It's a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black," said Susan Rice, the assistant secretary of State for African affairs in the Clinton administration. "Their charm has fooled some but not all."

As the war has continued, Sudan has been trying to increase its standing in the international arena. In addition to helping the United States in its campaign against terrorism, Sudanese President Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, who seized power 12 years ago in a coup d'etat, has assumed the role of elder statesman in the region, saying he wants to help promote peace and democracy for his troubled neighbors Somalia and the Central African Republic.

But the shadow of battle is long. Under pressure from an eclectic coalition of politicians and interest groups--from U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and the Christian right to the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the NAACP--Bush appointed Danforth to help bring an end to the war that so far has claimed an estimated 2 million lives.

Critics say Sudan's Islamist government in the north has used money from oil exploitation in the south to fund a brutal war against militias in the mainly Christian and animist south. The same critics say the Bush administration has gone soft on Sudan, especially since Sept. 11.

"Sudan is actively engaged in a sudden effort to recast its image as a great friend of peace, democracy and the United States," Rice said. "It strains credulity."

On an African trip this month, Rice's successor, Walter Kansteiner, told reporters in Johannesburg, South Africa, that since Sept. 11, the relationship between Khartoum and Washington has "deepened, widened and improved considerably." Sudan, which once allowed Osama bin Laden to set up training camps on its soil, has been readily handing over to the U.S. its intelligence files on the Al Qaeda leader's operations.

"We are appreciative of Khartoum's cooperation [against Bin Laden] and we value it," Kansteiner said.

But Kansteiner insisted that the U.S. relationship with Sudan "is going to be driven by the internal Sudanese situation, specifically the peace process, or lack thereof."

In his inaugural trip to Sudan last month, Danforth asked the government and the main rebel group, the Sudan People's Liberation Army, to agree to four measures intended to build confidence between the combatants, as a step to further talks. He called on them to stop bombing civilians; halt abduction and enslavement of southern Sudanese; establish zones and periods when humanitarian aid workers can deliver food and treat disease; and ensure access for relief workers in the Nuba Mountains, where fierce fighting has left thousands of people stricken with hunger and disease.

The first evidence of Sudan's new cooperation in the peace process came this week when Danforth announced that Khartoum and the People's Liberation Army had agreed to three of the four measures. Khartoum declined to accept international monitors, who would have investigated bombing of civilian targets. And though it denied that slavery exists in Sudan, the government pledged to allow a U.S.-led mission to investigate ways of preventing it.

Experts said the coming months will show whether Sudan and the People's Liberation Army are serious about reaching a comprehensive peace deal. Similar cease-fire accords have been broken, according to Robert Rotberg, an African specialist at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He said it appears that Sudan hastily agreed to Danforth's demands to "accelerate its charm offensive" with the United States.

John Garang, the People's Liberation Army chairman, said he too is skeptical of Khartoum's motives.

"It's difficult to read the mind of the devil," Garang told reporters in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. The government might have agreed to Danforth's conditions "to avoid being hit and to avoid being treated like the Taliban."

"Once a terrorist, always a terrorist," he said.

Whatever Sudan's intentions, some fruits of the cease-fire will be reaped today when aid workers venture into the Nuba Mountains to immunize thousands of children against polio.

"The Sudanese government will have to show the world whether this is a new way of doing business or whether they just want to please the Yanks," a Western diplomat said.


* Times staff writer Ann M. Simmons contributed to this report.