Sudan VP, rebel head set to resume talks to end Africa's longest war

Sept 8, 2003 (AFP)

A US special envoy held separate talks here Monday with a southern Sudanese rebel group and Khartoum's vice president in a new bid to end a deadlock in attempts to end Africa's longest running civil war.

Jeff Millington, a former US charge d'affaires in Khartoum, now representing his country on the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), met first with Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) leader John Garang and then with IGAD chief mediator Kenyan General Lazaro Sumbeiywo.

Millington, who arrived straight from Washington, later held talks with Sudanese Vice President Osman Ali Taha, paving the way for other consultations between Taha and Garang expected later Monday in a final effort to end 20 years of civil war, officials close to the talks said.

"Washington is closely watching this peace process and I came along to see the developments in the talks," Millington told AFP.

Diplomats in the region see Washington's interest in brokering a peace deal for Sudan -- where a civil war has since 1983 pitted the largely Christian and animist south against Muslim, Arabised Khartoum -- as a desire to take part in the development of Sudan's largely untapped oil reserves.

Sudan produces some 300,000 barrels per day of crude from oilfields in the centre of the country, near the front line in the fighting between Khartoum and the SPLA, but experts say it has the potential for much greater output.

Much of the country's oil wealth is believed to be in the south and other areas controlled by the SPLA.

Earlier on Monday, Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail was optimistic of a peace agreement.

"The talks are headed for a breakthrough on the issues in dispute. We expect an accord to be signed soon to end 20 years of civil war," Ismail told journalists in Cairo, where he is to attend Tuesday and Wednesday an Arab foreign ministers' meeting, also due to discuss Sudan's peace process.

A source close to the talks in the Kenyan Rift Valley town of Naivasha, 80 kilometres (50 miles) northwest of Nairobi, described the negotiations between Garang and Taha as "tough."

The pair are trying to break a stalemate on how to share power and resources, particularly oil revenues, during a six-year interim period of self-rule for southern Sudan provided for in an accord signed in July 2002 and which will be implemented when a comprehensive peace agreement is signed.

Another stumbling block has been the government's opposition to a clause in a draft deal drawn up by IGAD mediators providing for a separate army for the south, under Garang's leadership, during the period of southern self-rule.

Khartoum has argued that the clause paves the way for the south's immediate secession.

Both sides are also wrangling over three disputed areas -- the Southern Blue Nile State, Abyei, and the Nuba Mountains in the centre of the country -- where the SPLA is active even thought they are not geographically in the south.

The two sides last year reached a preliminary accord on transitional self-rule for the south, at the end of which it should decide in a referendum whether it wants to secede or remain united with the Arab and Muslim north.

The war in Sudan is Africa's oldest armed conflict. It has claimed at least 1.5 million lives, including victims of famine, with at least another four million people displaced.