Sudanese delegates "fully mandated" to make talks with rebels succeed

Jan 14, 2002 (AFP)

US envoy John Danforth and Sudan's pointman on peace held talks here Monday ahead of US-sponsored negotiations in Switzerland aimed at securing a limited ceasefire in Sudan's 18-year-old civil war.

Sudan's presidential peace advisor Ghazi Salah Eddin Atabani said he and Danforth discussed plans for a truce in central Sudan's Nuba mountains, on the agenda in Switzerland, and other confidence-building steps agreed last month.

Swiss officials said in Bern the ceasefire talks between Sudanese government officials and members of the main rebel group, the Sudan People's Liberation Army, started Monday at an undisclosed location in Switzerland.

Atabani said he and Danforth also discussed days and zones of "tranquility" for vaccination purposes, cessation of bombardment of civilian targets and an end to abduction and slavery practices.

But Atabani argued that his government could not stop air bombing while the rebels "are using hospitals and schools for military purposes", a situation which he said would give the SPLA "an advantage over the government troops and will undermine US credibility and neutrality in the conflict."

Supervision of aerial bombing "is impractical while planes are violating our airspace without any supervision," he said. "It will be a major violation of our national security and sovereignty if the government is denied its legitimate right to supervise the UN-sponsored Operation Lifeline-Sudan (OLS)," he said.

However, he said he had told Danforth that this issue "is open to discussion and we are willing to discuss it in the future."

Atabani said the Switzerland negotiations would be technical ones focusing on a ceasefire in the Nuba Mountains and were not related to a ceasefire in southern Sudan.

Mutref Sideiq, who is heading the delegation to Switzerland, told the independent Al-Sahafa daily that his team "is fully mandated to take any action for the success of the negotiations" in Switzerland.

"The negotiations will be a step towards peace," Sideiq said, calling upon the SPLA to be sincere in "speeding up the process of achieving peace."

Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Ismail for his part said after talks with Danforth that both sides are satisfied that "some progress" has occurred in the US bid for reaching peace in Sudan.

Ismail told journalists they had discussed ways of removing obstacles that "may hinder the progress that has occurred and which we must maintain by taking further steps forward." Ismail said they also reviewed Sudanese-US bilateral relations and the possibility of moving them forward.

The US envoy also met with First Vice President Ali Osman Taha and reviewed with him what had been discussed in the official talks earlier Monday, Atabani said.

Danforth will fly Tuesday to the Nuba Mountains area and Rumbek in the rebel-held Lakes State in southern Sudan, and will return to Khartoum on Wednesday, a foreign ministry official said.

Danforth, who arrived here late Saturday on his second tour in the region since he was appointed peace envoy in September by US President George W. Bush, will then head to Cairo on Thursday, he added.

Swiss officials said last week that the negotiations were aimed at achieving a limited term but renewable ceasefire in the Nuba mountains region in central Sudan, which would be placed under international supervision.

The Nuba mountains region is only one part of a huge area of southern Sudan affected by the civil war in the country, which has raged since 1983.

Since 1983 Arab and Muslim governments in Khartoum have been waging a war against SPLA rebels, made up mainly of animists and Christians from the south. Northern groups also took up arms against Khartoum in 1995.