Khartoum sends no delegates to planned Sudan talks

Jan 15 (Reuters)

Sudan's government did not send a delegation to peace talks with rebels scheduled for Wednesday in Kenya, saying it had not agreed to talk about the three disputed areas which mediators put on the agenda.

Mediators had hoped talks to end Sudan's 19-year-old war between Khartoum and southern rebels would restart in Nairobi, to discuss the status of Abyei, Southern Blue Nile and Nuba, which both the north and south claim as theirs.

Khartoum says the regions belong to the north and should not therefore be on the agenda at talks to discuss the war in southern Sudan, which has killed some two million people.

The government said it was willing to discuss the marginalised areas, but only in a separate forum.

Mediators and rebels from the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) spent the morning at the talks venue waiting to see if a government delegation would come.

Sudan's ambassador to Kenya, Ali Nimeiry, arrived just before the meeting was due to start at 1200 GMT to read a statement.

"The very fact that the question of the three areas is now being projected as the main subject of proof enough that the atmosphere of trust is seriously deteriorating," the statement said.

"This has resulted in putting the government in an unfortunate and rather awkward situation as if it were in defiance of the other parties."

The government said it wanted an immediate resumption of the mainstream talks dealing with issues such as power and wealth sharing, and the formation of a new government if a comprehensive peace was signed.

At a later news conference, Nimeiry said the government would talk about the three disputed areas with the rebels, but only once the details of how, when and where to hold such a meeting had been fixed.

"The difficulty now is not in the rationale of the problem, it is in the modalities," he told reporters. "Peace talks will be going on, it is not a stalemate, we just need to make an agreement on how we are to go about it."

Rebel spokesman Samson Kwaje told Reuters the SPLA hoped the problems would be resolved quickly and the talks put back on track.

"We are here, our delegation is here. If the government comes they are welcome," he said. "I think they should come. Consultations will continue and we hope the situation will be resolved."

The Kenyan-led negotiations are supposed to build on two previous rounds held last year. The first ended in July with a major breakthrough, agreeing to let the south, which is mainly animist with some Christians and Muslims, hold a referendum on independence from the Muslim north.

The second phase of talks, which broke off for Christmas, ended with the two sides extending a ceasefire until March 31. Both sides have since accused the other of breaking that truce.

Observers say the current talks offer the best chance yet for peace, but warn that negotiations are at a critical phase.