Sudan rebel leader makes first visit to truce area

December 3, 2002 (AFP)

Sudanese rebel leader John Garang is on an unprecedented visit to the Nuba Mountains area where a year-long truce is in force between the Khartoum government and his Sudan People's Liberation Army, an SPLA spokesman said Tuesday.

Spokesman Yasser Arman told AFP Garang arrived in the area on Sunday aboard a private aircraft "without the authorisation of the Khartoum government."

He added that it was Garang's first visit to the Nuba Mountains since the civil war broke out between the Islamic government and the southern-based Christian and animist rebels 16 years ago.

The mountains are an enclave away from the main war zone in the south, and a landmark ceasefire deal was concluded in the region, home to some half-a-million people, in January.

A Joint Military Commission comprising representatives of both sides in the conflict and chaired by a Norwegian brigadier general is monitoring the truce, which is seen as a litmus test for a comprehensive end to the civil war being negotiated in talks in Kenya.

Araman said Garang opened a consultative conference where he told more than 300 delegates, including 130 from Khartoum and other areas under government control that the SPLA was committed to a peaceful solution to the conflict through negotiations.

But questions needed to be settled included those of areas like the Nuba which are contested by the SPLA but remote from the main region the rebels would control under a peace deal.

The negotiations resuming in January must also resolve matters of government and distribution of the country's wealth.

The US State Department said Monday that Washington had stepped up its contacts with the warring parties as it prepares to host meetings between the two sides later this month.

On November 18, Khartoum and the SPLA announced that they had agreed to extend a ceasefire signed in October and to continue peace talks until the end of March.

They also agreed a Memorandum of Understanding that is expected to evolve into a final peace deal and outlines power-sharing initiatives for a new legislature, the executive and judicial branches of government.

The two sides also undertook in principle to hold general elections during a six-year interim period agreed upon in July, during which the south will enjoy autonomy from Khartoum.

After the six years, a referendum will be held to determine whether the south will secede or remain part of Sudan.