Cease-Fire Whets Hopes For Peace

Jan 31, 2002 (IPS)

The government of Sudan says it believes a 10-day-old cease-fire in Sudan's Nuba Mountains marks the beginning of the road to peace in Sudan.

"We are positive about the future of this agreement. We really feel that there is quite a fundamental shift towards peace in Sudan," says Ahmed Mohamed Dirdeiry, a senior Sudanese official in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.

Sudan's belligerents agreed to a six-month cease-fire for the Nuba Mountains of central Sudan earlier this month in talks brokered by the United States and Switzerland.

"What is right now happening in the Nuba Mountains could be only the start and the beginning of a comprehensive cease-fire according to a piecemeal approach and according to what right now has started there," says Dirdeiry.

"If that test of the Nuba Mountains is going to succeed definitely it will encourage everybody to see it replicated elsewhere in any other part of the country," he says.

But Samson Kwaje, spokesperson for the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) adamantly disagrees. He describes Dirdeiry's comments as "heavy political propaganda," charging that the government of Sudan created the crisis by denying access to the Nuba Mountains.

Kwaje insists that the Nuba Mountains, with a population of about one million, are an exceptional case and the SPLA will not agree to extend the cease-fire to Southern Sudan.

"The cease-fire in the Nuba Mountains is a humanitarian cease- fire and it has got nothing to do with Southern Sudan," he says.

"Southern Sudan is covered by the tripartite agreement between the government of Sudan, the United Nations Operation Lifeline Sudan and us in 1989. But the Nuba Mountains has been denied humanitarian access by the government of Sudan. So this cease-fire is now brokered to take care of that.

"As for cease-fires in other parts of southern Sudan, that is subject to a resolution of the political issues that caused the war in the first place as defined by the declaration of principles under the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD)," he says.

IGAD is a regional organization that has been negotiating for peace in Sudan for more than a decade with little success.

The SPLA rebels have been fighting the Islamic government in Khartoum since 1983. They are demanding more autonomy and religious freedom for southern Sudan. More than two million people have died during the 19-year civil war.

There seems to be little common ground between the two sides.

Dirdeiry, the Sudanese government official, says the 10-day-old cease-fire is holding firmly with no violations.

Yet last week, barely 24 hours after the cease-fire came into effect, the SPLA accused the government of violating it. Dirdeiry insists the battle took place eight hours before the cease-fire went into effect.

"In fact it was a violation by the SPLA because they were the ones who started shooting at our forces, eight hours before midnight on Mar 23," says Dirdeiry.

They even disagree over how much territory each controls.

"We are controlling more than 98 percent of the Nuba Mountains whereas the SPLA control territory-wise about two percent and population-wise about five percent," says Dirdeiry.

Kwaje denies this. "If it was that way why would they be panicking about rebels in the area," he asks.

He says the government only controls 55 to 60 percent of the Nuba Mountains and that the two sides have produced maps to prove it.

Such counter-accusations should soon be resolved. A joint cease-fire commission, including members of the government and the SPLA, is due to be set up on Feb. 5. It will be chaired by mediators from the U.S. and Swiss governments who brokered the agreement.

Deployment of troops is scheduled for Mar 5 with international monitors on the ground 15 days later.

If everything goes ahead smoothly, there are hopes that the cease-fire could be extended.

"We are sure that after six months hostilities will not be restarted, that after six months people will work to see that the cease-fire will still continue. We are so determined. We think that this cease-fire has begun only to continue," says Dirdeiry.

"We really feel that the best guarantees we have are the populations themselves. The people there are so willing to see this process continuing and to make sure that nobody is going to tell them to start fighting again," he says.

Dirdeiry says that on Jan. 31, local people decided to mark the tenth day of the cease-fire with a peaceful demonstration of cyclists -- the only means of transport used in the rocky Nuba Mountains. Their route crossed all the SPLA garrisons and strongholds, as well as passing through government-held territories.

"It is to indicate that things have changed, that life is normal and that citizens can move freely from one part to another," says Dirdeiry.