Rebel leader: road to peace in Sudan's 20-year conflict “irreversible”

By ANDREW ENGLAND Associated Press Writer
Sep 30, 2003 (AP)

A week after reaching a breakthrough agreement on security arrangements in peace talks with the Sudanese government, rebel leader John Garang told thousands of supporters in this southern stronghold Tuesday that the road leading to the end of Africa's longest conflict is "irreversible."

Thousands of cheering men and ululating women welcomed the veteran head of the Sudan People's Liberation Army, or SPLA, to Rumbek, 1,050 kilometers (650 miles) south of the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.

"The road to peace is irreversible," Garang said. "That's why the population is very happy. It's peace for the Sudanese people."

Asked whether the 20-year conflict between the Arab and Muslim north and the animist and Christian south was actually over in Africa's largest nation, Garang told reporters: "It's on the way to being over."

Under the so-called security arrangements agreement signed Sept. 25 in neighboring Kenya, government and rebel forces will be "integrated" in Khartoum and three conflict areas in central Sudan during a six-year transition period. But crucially for the rebels, the SPLA will retain its 80,000 to 120,000 forces in the south - the main area of conflict - while the government will withdraw all but 12,000 of its 103,000 soldiers from the region.

Garang called the agreement "a major step to peace," but cautioned that there were still "many issues" to be resolved.

An estimated 2 million people have died in the conflict, mainly through war-induced famine and disease in impoverished southern Sudan, since it erupted in 1983 after rebels took up arms against the predominantly Arab and Muslim northern government seeking greater autonomy for the south.

Many previous attempts at peace have failed, and despite recent optimism, the rebels remain highly suspicious of the government, which they accuse of reneging on earlier agreements.

More than 1,500 SPLA commanders have been meeting in Rumbek since July to discuss the peace process, and some expressed their doubts Tuesday.

"We are now here (meeting) for peace and for war. If we get our objectives, we are ready for peace. If not, we can still fight because the enemy we are fighting, we do not trust them," Cmdr. Dhel Mathiang Dhel, deputy commander of the 12th Infantry Brigade, told The Associated Press.

Another SPLA commander, Anthony Bol, said he is not convinced there will be peace because a comprehensive agreement has yet to be signed.

"What are the guarantees of this peace process?" Bol questioned. "On our side it will work, on their (government) side, it will not work. They are deceiving."

Garang, who has been traveling in southern Sudan since the agreement was signed to explain the progress of the peace process to his troops and supporters, said he accepted the security agreement because it recognized the SPLA as a national army.

Under a 1972 agreement that ended an earlier southern rebellion, the vast majority of rebel troops were demobilized, and just some 6,000, including Garang, were integrated into the government forces.

"It will not be like Anya Nya (the first rebellion) I will not surrender you," he told his men, speaking in his native Dinka language and in Arabic.

He also warned against internal divisions in the south; there are numerous southern factions that have fought each other in the past. At least three commanders are allied to the government.

The agreement "cannot be implemented if the people are divided," Garang said.

The latest peace process began in July 2002 when the government and the SPLA reached a deal known as the Machakos Protocol, under which the government accepted the right of southerners to self-determination through a referendum after six years. The rebels in turn accepted the maintenance of Islamic or sharia law in the north.

The next round of talks is set to resume Oct. 6 to deal with key remaining issues, including the sharing of Sudan's wealth, especially oil; the SPLA's representation in a transitional Cabinet, judiciary and civil service; and whether Islamic law should prevail in the capital or Khartoum should be secular as the rebels wish, said SPLA spokesman Samson Kwaje.

The parties also have yet to agree on the transitional presidency. Kwaje said mediators have proposed that national elections be held in three years, and, until then, President Omar el-Bashir should remain head of state with Garang as his deputy. The rebels, however, want the transition period split in two, with Bashir president for the first half and Garang president for the final three years.