Peace for Sudan to be decided this month: Sudanese FM

March 13 (AFP)

The future of Sudan, Africa's largest country, will be decided this month in government peace negotiations with southern rebels, the top Sudanese diplomat said in an interview published here Saturday.

The issue of peace "will be defined this month. There will either be peace in Sudan or there will be something else," Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismael was quoted as saying in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram.

Ismael said the current round of peace talks, begun on February 18 in Kenya and due to end on March 18, would be the last.

"The government cannot present more than it has already presented. The ball is now in the court of the other side," he said, insisting that his government wanted a "just and lasting peace."

Ismael indicated a conference of the oil-rich country's Arab and African neighbors would be organized in Khartoum, but gave no further details.

The peace effort gained steam Friday with the return of Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Taha to the talks in Kenya with the head of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army, John Garang.

Taha had left Kenya last Sunday for consultations with other top officials in Khartoum after the two sides failed to move forward on the status of the Abyei region in central Sudan, one of the three regions at the heart of the conflict.

Tentative agreements have already been reached on the other two contested central regions -- Nuba Mountains and Southern Blue Nile.

While the three regions are not strictly part of southern Sudan, which is largely controlled by the SPLA, the southern rebels claim to represent the people of the areas.

Abyei, an oil-rich area which was annexed from the south's Bahr el-Ghazal region shortly before independence in 1956 and incorporated into the Kordofan state, has been one of the main theatres in Sudan's long civil war.

In the 1990s, government troops and allied militia chased hundreds of thousands of ethnic Dinka and Nuer tribesmen from their native Abyei homeland and the SPLA is now demanding the right of the refugees to return to Abyei.

Khartoum is reluctant to return the area to the rebels, but has offered a referundum, which SPLA has turned down, until the refugees return to their homeland.

Sudan's civil war erupted in 1983 when the SPLA took up arms to end domination of the mainly Christian and animist south by the Arabised, Muslim north.

The conflict, along with war-related famine and disease, has claimed at least 1.5 million lives and displaced more than four million others.

Khartoum and the rebels have already signed an agreement on a 50-50 split of the country's wealth, particularly oil revenues.

In 2002, Khartoum and the SPLA struck a breakthrough accord granting the south the right to self-determination after a six-year transition period, while last September both sides reached a deal on transitional security, under which the government would withdraw its troops from the south.