Sudan says disputed areas beyond peace talks scope

Jan 14 (Reuters)

Sudan's president has said Khartoum will not negotiate a territorial dispute with southern rebels at peace talks in Kenya, potentially raising a major obstacle to a peace deal.

The status of three contested areas on the border between Sudan's north and south is among the issues in the way of a deal between the government and the southern-based rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army, who have been at war for two decades.

The two sides signed an accord this month on how to share wealth but have yet to agree on power-sharing and territory. Delegates at talks mediated by the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), said this month they were discussing the contested areas.

But President Omar Hassan al-Bashir said on Tuesday the talks in the Kenyan town of Naivasha had no authority to settle the status of the three areas -- Nuba Mountains, Southern Blue Nile and Abyei.

"We have no mandate to resolve this issue in the current talks in Naivasha," the official Sudan News Agency quoted Bashir as saying on Wednesday. "One issue in the peace talks on southern Sudan remains, that is participation in power."

The Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) has been fighting the Islamist government in the north for more autonomy for the largely Christian and animist south. The war, in which two million people have been killed and four million displaced, is complicated by factors such as ethnicity and religion as well as ideology and economics.

SPLA spokesman Samson Kwaje had no immediate comment on Bashir's statement but said the SPLA intended to reach a pact on power-sharing and the three areas in the next few days.

He said the SPLA had informed U.S. envoy John Danforth of its intention at a meeting in Naivasha earlier on Wednesday.

Danforth, President George W. Bush's special envoy to Sudan, is visiting Kenya to urge Sudan's foes to speed up the peace process. Danforth was meeting the government's top negotiator, First Vice-President Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, on Wednesday afternoon.

"After an agreement is reached the two principals (Taha and SPLA leader John Garang) will leave Naivasha and return to Sudan and technical committees will be left to discuss the (final) ceasefire agreement and the modalities of implementation," Kwaje said.

Bashir said the government had in the past agreed to a dialogue on the territorial dispute only "out of respect for the other side" and on condition that it did not form part of the IGAD peace initiative.

He said the government would oppose any attempt to redraw the border between northern and southern Sudan.

His remarks implied a formal pact was possible even without a deal on the border. Several senior members of the SPLA come from the disputed areas, which are currently part of the north.

In July 2002 the sides reached an accord granting the south a referendum on secession after a six-year interim period that begins after combatants agree a final peace deal. Under the arrangement Islamic sharia law would apply in the north but not the south.