Khartoum offers concession on aerial bombing

15 January, 2002 (IRIN)

President Umar Hasan al-Bashir on Monday offered a temporary halt to the government's aerial bombing campaign in the south in order to "prepare the atmosphere for a comprehensive cease-fire," United Press International (UPI) reported on Tuesday, citing Sudanese presidential peace envoy Ghazi Salah al-Din Atabani.

Bashir told US peace envoy John Danforth, on a mission to the Sudanese capital since Saturday, that Khartoum was willing to declare "a voluntary, unilateral cessation of aerial bombing for four weeks as a test," the report quoted Atabani as saying.

He added, however, that one could not talk about air bombing and exclude the Sudan People's Liberation Army's misuse of schools and hospitals for military purposes, or the supervision of air bombing without addressing aircraft violating Sudanese air space, it said.

A US official on the Danforth mission confirmed the offer but said it was conditional on the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) also putting down their weapons, the report added.

The issue of the government bombing civilian targets was the only one of four confidence-building proposals put to the government and SPLM/A by Danforth in November on which progress had not been made before the US envoy's return to Sudan this week, according to diplomatic sources.

The four US proposals - on humanitarian access to the Nuba Mountains; a cessation of bombing and artillery attacks on civilians; zones of tranquillity and times of tranquillity in which humanitarian assistance can be offered; and an end to the taking of slaves - were "tests of good faith" of the two warring parties that would affect American engagement in the peace process, Danforth said back in November.

An SPLA ceasefire in return for a government cessation of aerial bombing was an unlikely scenario since the rebel movement was firmly against a creeping cease-fire agreement outside the context of a comprehensive political settlement to end the Sudanese civil war, according to regional observers.

The government's principal war-fighting strategies have been aerial bombardment (often of civilian targets), use of food as a weapon, and support for militias that also conduct slave raids - all of which are threatened by the Danforth proposals and will therefore be strongly resisted, according to a prominent Sudan analyst.

The SPLM/A has repeatedly charged the Khartoum government with failing to halt its aerial bombardment of civilian populations in the south, as Danforth requested in November.

US members of Danforth's delegation in Sudan were on Monday sceptical about the government's offer to end bombings and said it needed "a lot more talking", while Atabani said the government was and would remain "open for discussion" on the matter, UPI reported.

Danforth said on his way to Sudan this week that, if he returned to the US saying that "the prospects are somewhat better for peace and, by the way, the government wont agree not to bomb civilians, that would be ridiculous," the agency stated on Sunday.

Atabani had said last week that the current round of dialogue with the US would concentrate on the basic issues which represented the core of south Sudan's problems, and which were not tackled by the four points raised by Danforth in the first stage of negotiations, the official Sudan News Agency reported.

Though the current US administration of George W Bush had taken a more constructive approach to Sudan than the previous government of Bill Clinton, a lot more needed to be done for its peace efforts to succeed, including straightening out important issues at the bilateral level, before their peace efforts could succeed, Atabani said.

He downplayed the four US proposals as "peripheral" to the core problems in Sudan and said peace could only be achieved "by forging a formula to distribute wealth and power fairly between north and south," Reuters news agency reported.

The absence of a peace process which the warring parties take seriously and to which these confidence-building measures could be tied is a major missing element of the Danforth initiative, according to regional analysts.

It was critical that the US find some way to move beyond the initial four proposals and place sustained international diplomatic and time pressure on the conflict parties to engage seriously in a credible peace process, they added.

In that context, Danforth has said he hopes to build broad international support for merging the two parallel peace efforts on Sudan - one under the regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the other a joint Libyan-Egyptian initiative - under the chairmanship of Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi of Kenya.