Sudan ceasefire talks in Switzerland off to "positive start"

BURGENSTOCK, Switzerland
Jan 14, 2002 (AFP)

Ceasefire talks in Switzerland between the Sudanese government and the main rebel group have got off to a positive start, Swiss ambassador Joseph Bucher said on Tuesday.

The two sides are meeting behind closed doors in the central Swiss town of Burgenstock to try and agree on a ceasefire in the mountainous Nuba region, part of a huge area of southern Sudan that has been ravaged by civil war since 1983.

"After initial contacts on Monday, discussions got off the ground in a very favourable climate," Bucher told reporters.

Eleven representatives of the Khartoum government and seven members of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) arrived in Burgenstock, near Lucerne, on Monday for talks sponsored by Switzerland and the United States.

"The Americans are leading the discussions on the technical and military aspects (of a ceasefire). Switzerland is leading the debate on the political aspects," Swiss foreign ministry spokesman Livio Zanolari told AFP.

The ministry said on Monday it would not release details of the meeting, so as to "facilitate frank and substantial exchanges", but a statement was likely to be published on Thursday.

Swiss officials say the talks -- expected to last a week, although no deadline has been set -- aim to achieve a ceasefire that is limited in time but renewable. It would be placed under international supervision.

Since 1983 successive Arab and Muslim governments in Khartoum have been fighting the SPLA, mainly composed of animists and Christians from the south. Northern groups also took up arms against Khartoum in 1995.

The Nuba mountains is crossed by a pipeline which is regarded as essential for Sudanese oil exports.

The government and SPLA accepted the principle of a ceasefire in the strategic region in November but the SPLA accused Khartoum last month of violating that accord. "The parties have agreed in principle (to a ceasefire) but there has been no follow up on its application," a Swiss official said on Monday.

The meeting in Switzerland -- which Zanaroli said was organised at the request of the warring Sudanese parties -- follows intense diplomatic efforts by US envoy John Danforth and years of Swiss mediation.

He said Bucher, the Swiss ambassador in Kenya until last year, was "very involved in the Sudan question" and "had the confidence of the warring parties".

Mutref Sideiq, the foreign undersecretary leading Khartoum's team to the talks, was reported by a Sudanese newspaper on Monday as saying the talks would be "a step towards peace".

The SPLA delegation is led by Abdel Aziz al-Hilu, the rebel commander in the Nuba mountains. The US delegation in Switzerland is composed of state and defence department officials.

Relief agencies have expressed concern about access to the Nuba mountains. About 158,000 people have been forced from their homes by recent fighting there, according to the UN World Food Programme.