Sudanese ceasefire talks begin: Swiss official

by Peter Capella
Jan 14, 2002 (AFP)

Ceasefire talks between Sudanese government officials and members of the main Sudanese rebel group started Monday at an undisclosed location in Switzerland, a Swiss government spokeswoman said.

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Daniela Stoffel told AFP that delegations from the Sudanese government and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) flew into Zurich airport earlier in the day for the US-Swiss sponsored talks. "The talks have started," she said.

About 10 representatives on each side were meant to take part in the meeting, which should last about one week, but officials declined to give further details about the location. "It's neither in Bern nor in Geneva," Stoffel said.

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 meeting follows intense US diplomatic efforts in Sudan led by US presidential envoy John Danforth and years of Swiss mediation amongst the warring parties.

The 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.

"The talks are taking place in the framework of the so-called Danforth initiative," US embassy spokesman Bruce Armstrong said. "Amongst Danforth's proposals, there is the ceasefire. The parties have agreed in principle but there has been no follow up on its application," Stoffel said.

The two sides had accepted the principle of a ceasefire in the Nuba mountains in November 2001, but the SPLA last month accused the Sudanese government of violating the agreement.

"We have to set out the technical modalities of the agreement and implementaion must also be supervised internationally, though not by the UN," Stoffel said.

In remarks published in a Sudanese newspaper on Monday, Mutref Sideiq, the foreign undersecretary leading Khartoum's team to the talks, said the government would participate "with an open heart and sincere willingness to make a success of the negotiations".

"The negotiations will be a step towards peace," Sideiq said.

He said the SPLA delegation would be led by Abdel Aziz al-Hilu, the rebel commander in the Nuba Mountains.

Officials said the US delegation in Switzerland would be composed of State Department and Defense Department officials, while Swiss peace envoy Joseph Bucher will lead the Swiss negotiators.

A pipeline which is regarded as essential for Sudanese oil exports crosses the Nuba mountains.

Relief agencies have also expressed concern about access to the area, where about 158,000 people have been forced out of their homes in recent fighting, according to the UN World Food Programme.

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.