Sudan observer chief says ceasefire holding

By Caroline Drees
CAIRO, March 18 (Reuters)

A two-month-old ceasefire between Sudanese troops and rebels in the Nuba Mountains is holding despite allegations of violations, and both parties are committed to it, a chief international observer said on Monday.

Norwegian Brigadier-General Jan Erik Wilhelmsen, who returned to Norway after a four-day reconnaissance mission to the area last week, said his team of about 50 international monitors would deploy in the mountains in early April.

The ceasefire, which was agreed by the government and the Sudanese rebels in Switzerland, has been plagued by claims of violations. But Wilhelmsen said he believed both sides were interested in extending it beyond the initial half-year period.

"In our opinion, we can say we believe that the ceasefire holds since the 19th of January (when the agreement was sealed)," Wilhelmsen told Reuters in a telephone interview.

"We are very much wanted down there to do the mission. This goes for both parties of the conflict."

Under the ceasefire agreement, the monitors have a mandate to protect civilians from military operations.

Diplomats have expressed hope that the truce can be expanded to the rest of Africa's largest country, ravaged by war since 1983. Fighting continues in other parts of Sudan, including the strategically vital oil-producing areas in the south.

Sudan's civil war pits rebels seeking greater autonomy for the mainly Christian or animist south against the Islamist government. Some two million people have been killed as a direct or indirect result of the warfare.


The general said his reconnaissance mission had allowed him and his colleagues to complete a survey of the vast mountain area and speak to local citizens as well as many officials on both sides, but that there were areas they had not seen.

"You must remember that this is 80,000 sq km (30,000 sq miles). You are not able to drive there. You can hardly go by helicopter. For a seven-man team to cover that ground in four days is impossible," he said.

Wilhelmsen said an advance team of observers was scheduled to arrive in Sudan on April 1, with the rest of the 50 members arriving a week later.

As well as international monitors, the mission will include at least 40 observers from the government and rebels, with both represented in equal numbers.

The United States has pledged $5 million to pay for the monitors, while Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Norway and Switzerland are expected to contribute $10 million.