Danforth ends peace mission discouraged

By ELI J. LAKE, UPI State Department Correspondent
Jan 17, 2002 (UPI)

As the president's envoy for peace in Sudan left Khartoum on Wednesday he said he was discouraged by the prospects for reconciliation in a country that has been divided by civil war since 1983.

Before former Sen. John Danforth left the dusty city, he met with Christian clergy. He said in an interview Thursday he had been looking for a way to get the Christians more involved in reaching peace with the Muslim government. But he did not hear what he wanted.

"The history of their grievances is so long, they may have given up. Their only position is to get out," he said, adding that he thought the Christians were not interested in something less than independence.

Indeed, Sudan's Christians have suffered greatly under Omar Hassan Bashir's government.

In his four-day tour of the country, Danforth visited a church where Khartoum's police tear gassed and beat worshipers on Easter Sunday. He visited a polio vaccination facility in Mapel, where government-supported militias have made it impossible for doctors to administer the vaccine to rebel-controlled areas in the province. And he heard government ministers deny allegations of slavery and abductions of non-Muslims, despite the fact he heard in his last tour of Sudan in November from the survivors of the practice.

"I don't think I can blame them," he said of the clergy he met on Wednesday evening. "When people have been subjected to violence and discrimination over a long period of time, they feel they are not part of the society."

Nonetheless, Danforth believes the civil war will never accomplish anything for either side.

"The fighting is going nowhere," he said.

Despite the evidence that neither side appears ready to make a peace deal, Danforth has made some progress in his stint as the president's peacemaker since he took the job in October.

On the diplomatic side, he has galvanized the Europeans, who were so opposed to the Clinton administration's policy on Sudan that they supported the country's successful bid to join the U.N. Human Rights Commission last spring. One U.S. official explained Wednesday that the administration early on made it clear to the Europeans that they were not seeking to topple Bashir's government and in turn the Europeans have been very supportive of Danforth's peace plan.

As evidence, the Swiss have paid for the plane tickets and lodging fees of the northern and southern Nuban commanders in Bern for cease-fire talks this week. The Norwegians, French and British have volunteered eminent people for an international commission to investigate the allegations of slavery in Sudan.

Danforth has persuaded Kenya and Egypt to work together through a regional peace process, hoping to get the two sides that have bickered on the issue in the past to present a united front.

On the ground, Danforth has managed to wrangle baby steps from Sudan's army and the Sudan People's Liberation Army fighting them. He brokered a temporary cease-fire agreement in the Nuba Mountains in November that went into effect last month. Early reports on the talks in Bern look good, according to U.S. officials traveling in his delegation. Both sides are optimistic that the United States has offered to monitor an agreement if it materializes, according to one U.S. source.

He has arranged for more access for vaccinations in Sudanese areas where there is still wild polio. And he has at least received assurances from Khartoum to allow the international panel to investigate the slavery allegations in the country, though as part of the agreement Khartoum insisted that it include a footnote denying the claims.

But at the same time many problems remain. Sudan's army for example will not allow the U.S. Agency for International Development the time it will need to vaccinate Sudanese cattle against Rinderpest. As a result, Sudan cannot export cattle to Saudi Arabia across the Red Sea.

Both rebel and government officials in the Nuba Mountains complain that there have been numerous cease-fire violations since the temporary cease-fire was signed. A U.S. delegation cut short a humanitarian assessment of the region last week after reports of artillery shelling.

Most important, the north offered no assurance that it would permanently stop bombing civilians, despite a modification in Danforth's proposal to rule out any and all attacks on civilians from north and south, a concession to the north. Instead Bashir offered a four-week halt to aerial bombing but conditioned it on a total cease-fire from the rebels.

And while there are many reports that the Sudan People's Liberation Army has massacred villages, it is the north that appears to be the worst violator. Last September, Sudanese planes bombed a marketplace in Yei and in October Sudanese planes, escorting U.N. planes dropping food, bombed villagers as they approached sacks of food in Western Baha Ghazel.

The government still makes no distinction between the SPLA and civilians living under areas they control. "You don't just drop food anywhere especially when there is a fighting army," Bashir's adviser to the conflict, Ghazi Salah Atabani al-Din said in an interview on Monday. "You risk being accused of supplying that army with food. I don't think the U.S. government would do this."

Bashir's adviser is even suspicious of the humanitarian missions themselves. U.S. officials say the north has consistently charged that planes from Kenya are also providing the rebels with weapons. In negotiations, Atabani al-Din said he pressed the Americans to allow his government to inspect the planes before they are loaded. But this is a point Danforth's delegation has flatly rejected.

Former U.S. Ambassador Robert Oakley who has been Danforth's top adviser since he signed on as envoy in September, said Tuesday that as early as October he said the United States would not interfere on behalf of either side. "You guys are trying to get the United States to shut off arms to the south, but no one is stopping arms going to you."

At the end of Danforth's mission, the fate of American engagement in the conflict is up in the air. He pressed the north to accept monitors to the conflict and they did not. They did, however, agree to keep talking about it. Danforth makes his recommendations to President Bush this spring, possibly as soon as March, but Danforth has said throughout the trip that if he cannot get an agreement on targeting civilians he cannot in good faith recommend to the president he remain involved.