Sudanese diplomat says Nuba Mountains cease-fire is holding

By MATTHEW J. ROSENBERG Associated Press Writer
NAIROBI, Kenya, Jan 31, 2002 (AP)

A 10-day-old cease-fire in the isolated Nuba Mountains is holding between the Sudanese government forces and rebels, setting the stage for a larger peace effort in Africa's largest nation, a Sudanese diplomat said Thursday.

"We are positive about the future of this agreement, we really feel there is quite a fundamental shift toward peace in Sudan," said Dirdeiry Ahmed, a senior official at the Sudanese embassy in Nairobi.

"What is now happening in the Nuba Mountains could be the beginning of a comprehensive cease-fire" covering the entire country.

Southern Sudanese rebels have been fighting the Islamic government in Khartoum since 1983, demanding more autonomy for southern Sudan and religious freedom for southerners who follow mainly traditional beliefs or Christianity.

More than 2 million people have died in fighting and related famines since during the 18-year civil war.

The war has been calamitous for the Nuba people, squeezed between the Muslim government dominated by Arab northerners and the black southern rebels.

From an estimated prewar high of 1.5 million, the Nuba region's population has dropped by two-thirds as army attacks on civilians and war-induced food shortages have forced many to flee.

The Nuba Mountains cease-fire was reached in Buergenstock, Switzerland, on Jan. 19. The U.S.-Swiss mediated agreement opens the way for relief and rebuilding programs to begin in the Nuba Mountains, located in central Sudan south of the government town of El-Obeid.

The deal also foresees a joint monitoring commission composed of representatives of each side and neutrals, and an international monitoring unit of 10-15 military and civilian personnel.

The diplomat dismissed rebels claims that the government had attacked some of its positions a day or two after the agreement went into effect on Jan. 22. The fighting took place on Jan. 21, he said.

"Right now life is normal," Ahmed said. "This indicates the will of the people to make sure this process is continued."

Rebel officials were not immediately available for comment.

In the past year, the government of President Omar el-Bashir has exibited greater openess regarding the conflict and has made it easier for foreign journalists to visit Sudan.