Steps Towards Peace Proving Painful For Gov'T


Jan 25, 2002 (IPS)

Tentative steps towards peace are proving painful for the government of Sudan.

The government and southern rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) agreed to a six-month cease-fire in the Nuba Mountains starting on Jan. 22. But the rebels are already accusing the government of having violated that agreement, barely 24 hours after it came into effect.

Meanwhile, the government of Sudan is also under fire from Amnesty International, which accuses it of harassing the independent daily Khartoum Monitor and its staff. The Khartoum Monitor is the main newspaper that publishes articles relating to southern Sudan, the war, peace proposals and initiatives -- issues on which the government exercises heavy censorship.

The SPLA say the government of Sudan attacked one of their garrisons in Tulushi on Jan. 23 with the aim of capturing it. The rebels claim six government soldiers and two rebels were killed in a one-and-a-half hour battle.

"Senior Sudanese military officers have issued orders to their field commanders to capture as more territories as possible including attacking and overrunning SPLA positions before the arrival of international neutral observers to monitor the cease- fire," says an SPLA statement.

"They want to gain ground before the arrival of the international observers and monitors so that they can count that they are withdrawing from so many places so that the SPLA should also reciprocate," says Samson Kwaje, spokesperson for the SPLA in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.

"But this is bad faith. In general, the governments that have come and gone in Khartoum always dishonor their agreements. So it is typical of their character," he says.

The U.S.-Swiss mediated cease-fire in the Nuba Mountains was reached on Jan. 19 in Buergenstock, Switzerland. The deal is supposed to open the way for humanitarian relief to reach the Nuba people of south-central Sudan.

The cease-fire observers or International Monitoring Unit, made up of 10 to 15 military and civilian personnel from Western Europe and North America, are due to arrive on Feb. 18. Until then, troops on both sides must stay within 500 meters of their original positions.

The government of Sudan insists that it is abiding by these rules and that the SPLA's allegations are false.

"This is a figment of someone's imagination. This is totally incorrect," says Mohamed Dirdeiry, the Sudanese charge d'affairs in Nairobi. "The SPLA just want to take advantage of the fact that international monitors did not arrive."

Dirdeiry says the SPLA secretly oppose the cease-fire agreement. "The SPLA is not at all feeling that the agreement is in their favor. The SPLA feels that the time for comprehensive cease-fire has not yet come and they don't want to see at all any cease-fire in any part of Sudan.

"They went to the agreement because they were under pressure and now they want to convince the international community that it is the government not the SPLA that has violated the agreement," he says.

Kwaje says it is true that the SPLA will not accept a total cease-fire unless it is part of an overall political agreement granting autonomy to southern Sudan -- the issue for which they took up arms 18 years ago.

But Kwaje says the SPLA is in favor of limited humanitarian cease-fires and has agreed to them in the past, for example in Bahr el-Ghazal between June 1998 and Sep. 2000 when there was a famine.

He says the SPLA are anxious to see relief reach the Nuba people.

The population of the Nuba Mountains has fallen by two-thirds since the war began in 1983. Army attacks on civilians and war-induced shortages have forced some one million people to flee the area.

The Buergenstock talks stemmed from an initiative by U.S. envoy John Danforth, a former senator assigned by President George W. Bush to seek a peace settlement. It is one of four confidence-building measures aimed a paving the way for broader peace talks.

Another of Danforth's four tests of good faith is for the government to allow monitors to investigate allegations of slavery.

Rights organizations report that the government, as part of its counter-insurgency effort against armed opposition groups in the South, supports militias based in Western Sudan. These militias are responsible for raiding villages and abducting civilians. Abducted civilians are reportedly used as unpaid domestics or laborers.

The Sudanese authorities have repeatedly denied the existence of slavery in the country, stating that it is a problem of traditional tribal abductions over which they have little control.

Khartoum's clamp-down on Nhial Bol, the Khartoum Monitor's Managing Editor, shows that this is a sensitive area in which it does not take kindly to criticism.

On Jan. 15, Bol was convicted of "propagating false news" for having published an article suggesting government complacency towards slave raiders in Sudan. He was sentenced to six months imprisonment unless he pays a fine of $1,900.

The newspaper was fined $5,700 and its assets are under threat of seizure if the fine is not paid.

Bol was released on Jan. 17 after Khartoum Monitor staff members managed to pay his fine. However, the fine against the paper still stands and it is being censored -- security services can screen articles before they are published.

Amnesty International says the trial was unfair as Bol was tried just hours after being arrested and his defence lawyer was not allowed to talk during the trial.

"The Sudanese authorities are using excessive fines and unfair and arbitrary trials to curtail freedom of expression," Amnesty International said. The organization believes that the Khartoum Monitor is harassed because of its articles critical of the Sudanese government.