Talks on Sudan's disputed territories make little headway

March 19, 2003 (AFP)

The first round of talks between Khartoum and Sudan's main rebel group on the status of three regions claimed by both sides ended here Wednesday with little progress being made, mediators said.

The negotiations in the Kenyan capital between the government and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) covered the conflict areas of Abyei, Southern Kordofan (also known as the Nuba Mountains), and the Blue Nile.

"Only limited progress was made ... during this session," said a statement issued by chief mediator Lazarus Sumbeiywo.

"Nevertheless the parties engaged each other in earnest and frank exchanges, " it added.

While Khartoum says it controls most of the territories, the SPLM/A claims to have been given a mandate to represent their populations.

"The objective of these negotiations was to have the GOS (Government of Sudan) and SPLM/A prepare the ground for negotiating a resolution to the conflict in these areas," Sumbeiywo's statement said.

The discussions, which lasted two weeks, were held outside the format of wider peace negotiations, which are steered by the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and which have already produced landmark accords.

The main IGAD-lead peace process is expected to resume on March 24 in the Kenyan town of Machakos.

"We did not expect to reach an agreement during these two weeks, but we have made substantial progress," said Ahmed Dirdeiry, the charge d'affaires in the Sudanese embassy in Nairobi.

"We were discussing the modalities, agenda and guiding principles on how we can resolve the problem of these three regions," he told AFP.

"We shall continue with our negotiations on the regions," Dirdeiry added.

Samson Kwaje, the spokesman for the SPLM/A, said the government delegation had acknowledged that there was a "problem" in the three regions.

"We shall continue negotiating on them, specifically to find out why there has been fighting in the regions and try to reach an agreement," said Kwaje.

"If an agremeent is reached, it was agreed that it will become part and parcel of the main peace agreement," he added.

Last July the government and the SPLM/A agreed during peace talks in Machakos that Sudan's south would enjoy autonomy for six years, after which a referendum would be held to decide the region's political future.

Sudan's civil war has pitted the Khartoum government, representing the mostly Islamic Arab north of the country, against the SPLM, based in the mainly Christian and animist south.