Bumpy start to fresh Sudan talks on disputed areas

By Wambui Chege
March 4 (Reuters)

A new round of talks intended to bring peace to Sudan nearly faltered at the start on Tuesday after the government accused the rebels of failing to stick to an earlier agreement defining the limits of the discussions.

The talks, which may offer the best chance yet of ending 20 years of conflict that has killed an estimated two million people, will cover disputed areas, some rich in oil, which both parties claim.

The contested areas of Abyei, Nuba Mountains and Southern Blue Nile, have been part of north Sudan since independence from Britain in 1956, but the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) says they are marginalised, like the rest of the south.

SPLA spokesman Samson Kwaje told Reuters they were demanding self-rule and a waiver on Islamic law for the disputed regions, now under their control. Similar status was granted to rebel-held southern Sudan under a truce reached last year.

"You cannot hide under the boundaries that were created by colonial powers. These people are Africans like us and they're not all Muslims. They should be addressed and not just suppressed," Kwaje said at the Nairobi suburb of Karen where the talks are being held, in neighbouring Kenya.

But a Sudanese official at the talks said the rebels' demands were not part of the ground rules that formed the basis of the resumed talks.

"They (SPLA) have signed an agreement with us, saying very well that those areas are not part and parcel of southern Sudan," said Ahmed Dirdeiry, Sudan's deputy ambassador to Kenya and a member of the government delegation.

"So if they want to backtrack on that, they should tell us."


The two sides agreed last year to a waiver on Islamic law in non-Muslim areas, and a six-year transitional period after which the south would vote in a referendum on secession.

The new round of talks are expected to continue for another two weeks, chief mediator Lazaro Sumbeiywo said.

He said Abyei district, a swampy oil-rich area, was at the heart of the conflict and was acknowledged by both sides as a special case. An oil pipeline passes through the Nuba Mountains.

"I am more than optimistic we shall reach an agreement. I am looking to stop the war in those areas and addressing their grievances," Sumbeiywo told reporters.

The SPLA is are based in the south, home to many animists and Christians, and sees itself as more ethnically African than the Muslim Arab north. The SPLA has been fighting for more autonomy since 1983.

South Sudan accounts for about a third of the 30 million population of Sudan, Africa's largest country.