Parties extend ceasefire as talks continue

1 March (IRIN)

Sudanese warring parties have extended the ongoing ceasefire for another month, during which the parties are expected to hammer out pending issues on the negotiating table before a final peace deal is reached to end the country's 20-year civil war.

The government and the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement/A (SPLM/A) on Saturday in Naivasha, Kenya, extended to the end of March the Memorandum of Understanding on Cessation of Hostilities, first signed in October 2002, a Sudanese government statement said.

Samson Kwaje, the official SPLM/A spokesman, told IRIN that the ceasefire had been extended with the anticipation that the final accord would be signed soon. "We have signed it until the end of March, hoping that peace will have come by that time," Kwaje said.

Sources said, however, that the parties were unable to move forward on the two remaining issues of power-sharing and the disputed regions of Abyei, Nuba Mountains and southern Blue Nile during the proposed six-and-a-half-year transition period to follow the signing of a final
peace agreement.

In particular, the case of the oil-rich Abyei region was proving a stumbling block as both parties stuck to their earlier positions, potentially leading to a stalemate.

A source told IRIN that although a large part of the Abyei population identified with the SPLM/A, the issue was further complicated by the
importance of its oil wealth, which the Khartoum government considered a potential first source of oil geographically situated in the northern part
of the country. "If there is a stalemate, we would expect the international community to step in. But I don't know what form it would take," the source told IRIN.

The talks, which are currently in the stage of direct negotiations between Sudanese First Vice-President Ali Uthman Muhammad Taha and the SPLM/A leader, John Garang, have made significant progress, which culminated in last year's signing of an agreement on security arrangements and one on wealth-sharing during the proposed transition period.

About 2 million people have died and another 4 million displaced as a direct result of the 20-year conflict in southern Sudan.

The ceasefire extension was reportedly signed between Khartoum and SPLM/A on the same day that acting US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Charles Schneider held talks in Naivasha with Vice-President Ali Uthman and the SPLM/A leader, John Garang.

Observers said the meeting was a sign of mounting pressure being brought to bear on the parties to speed up the negotiations and reach a
comprehensive agreement soon. The US government this week announced that it had extended Schneider's mission by four days.