Sudan talks stumble as govt, rebels refuse to budge on demands

Sept 12 (AFP)

Peace talks aimed at ending Sudan's 20-year civil war suffered a setback as they entered their ninth day Friday, because the government and southern rebels have refused to give ground on their demands, officials said.

An official from the Khartoum government delegation, who asked not to be named, said proposals made by the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) on wealth- and power-sharing, and on the three areas claimed by both sides, directly contradicted the government's proposals.

"There was a setback yesterday (Thursday) on wealth- and power-sharing and the three areas -- Southern Kordofan, Southern Blue Nile and Abyei," the official said.

"The SPLA prepared a paper that contradicted what we had agreed upon," the official added.

Another source close to the talks said the negotiations had reached a critical juncture as both sides were digging in on their positions.

"We have now reached a critical level that has also hightened mutual mistrust between our two sides and both are yet to decide on what sacrifices are to be made for the sake of peace in Sudan," said the official, who also requested anonymity.

More than 1.5 million people have died in Sudan's war, Africa's longest civil conflict, and more than four million have been displaced.

Sudan Vice President Osman Ali Taha and SPLA leader John Garang have been meeting in the Kenyan Rift Valley town of Naivasha, 80 kilometres (50 miles) northwest of Nairobi since Thursday last week to try to break the deadlock in peace talks for Africa's largest country.

The official said that with the arrival of wealth-sharing experts from Khartoum on Thursday, the government side requested the SPLA to deliver all its proposals on the four deadlocked issues so that they can all be considered together.

"The SPLA has already made available the four proposals, but the government has yet to respond," the official said, as the regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) chief mediator, retired Kenyan general Lazaro Sumbeiywo, shuttled between the two sides.

But Nicholas Hayson, an adviser to Sumbeiywo, was guardedly optimistic at the level the talks had reached.

"The talks are delicately poised, as both sides are reluctant to let go their initial positions, but the sides are anxious to reach an agreement as soon as possible," said Hayson, a former lawyer to retired South African president Nelson Mandela.

On Thursday, the two sides began discussing security arrangements, "which has been a major building block towards a comprehensive peace agreement" after Khartoum sent in its Defence Minister Major General Bakri Hassan Saleh and several top generals to boost its delegation.

Those talks were to focus on the co-existence of two armies during an interim six-year period of self-rule for the south, agreed to at an earlier round of talks.

Several officials agreed Thursday that ironing out differences on security arrangements was essential to safeguard whatever peace agreement is reached.

"We must agree on security arrangements first because it will be the essential guarantee that both sides will respect the peace agreement after it is signed.

"It will also be an assurance that the agreement will be implemented after signature," the officials, who also sought anonymity, told AFP.

The SPLA wants to keep its forces intact during the interim period of self-rule, but Khartoum wants the army disbanded to prevent the oil-rich south's secession.

Sudan's civil war, which erupted in 1983, has pitted the mainly Christian and animist south against the Muslim, Arabicised north.