Oil-rich Abyei major stumbling block to Sudan peace deal: Khartoum

Jan 18 (AFP)

The oil-rich district of Abyei, currently controlled part by Khartoum and part by southern rebels, is proving the main stumbling block in peace talks in Kenya, a senior government negotiator said Sunday.

Agreement is almost complete on the other two disputed areas whose future is at stake -- the Nuba mountains and southern Blue Nile State, said foreign ministry undersecretary Mutref Siddeiq, who heads the government side in the talks on the issue.

But the continuing impasse over Abyei has made a new January 20 target date for a comprehensive agreement, set after the two sides missed a New Year's Eve deadline, "impractical", Siddeiq told reporters after briefing the cabinet.

The rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army has pressed for the three areas to be included in the autonomous region which is to be established in the south for six years ahead of a referendum on independence.

Like the south, historically they were mainly populated by indigenous non-Arab minorities and provided fighters for the rebel cause.

However, the government insists that, as they were not administratively part of the south under the boundaries inherited at independence in 1956, they should remain directly governed by Khartoum.

"We have agreed upon 95 percent of the disputed issues related to the Nuba mountains and southern Blue Nile and only two points have remained unresolved," Siddeiq said.

The two remaining points were the future policing arrangements for the two areas, and the form the agreement should take, he said.

But on Abyei, which has a large population from the same Dinka ethnic group as SPLA leader John Garang, the positions of the two sides remained "irreconcilable", according to Siddeiq.

"The government has rejected the (SPLA's) self-determination proposal for Abyei and is negotiating a special status in the coming stage in accordance with arrangements and guarantees that ward off separation and self-determination."

The government negotiator added that the deadlock over the oil-rich district was not the only obstacle to a rapid peace deal.

"There are issues, including the power-sharing, yet to be negotiated, and moreover, the talks will be halted for the Eid Al-Adha (the Muslim Feast of Sacrifice around the end of the month), to be resumed after the holidays."

Just 10 days ago, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said he was still looking forward to a settlement later this month in a civil war which has killed more than 1.5 million people and displaced another four million since 1983.

On Wednesday, US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said: "The clock continues to tick and our efforts remain under way."