Key phase for Sudan peace talks

By Martin Plaut
BBC regional analyst
16 May, 2004 (BBC News)

The long-running Sudanese peace talks currently under way in Kenya are entering a critical week. The government and the southern rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) now both say a peace treaty could be signed at any time.

The US has echoed this optimism by urging both parties to finalise a deal after 22 months of negotiations. The talks are aimed at ending two decades of war between the government in Khartoum and the southern rebels.

On Saturday, the Sudanese vice-president heading the government negotiating team, Ali Osman Taha, said the issues dividing the two sides had been almost overcome. And a spokesman for the SPLM, Yasser Arman, said that of the six major areas of disagreement four had now been resolved.

He said the SPLM has accepted that Islamic law would continue to be enforced in Khartoum, but that Christians would be exempt from its provisions. The rebels now also accepted that there will be two vice-presidents, one of whom would be their leader, John Garang.

The two areas still to be resolved are said to be the percentage of power the SPLM will have in central government and in the two disputed areas - the Nuba Mountains and Southern Blue Nile. The SPLM suggest these two outstanding disputes be referred to a third party for arbitration. If this can be overcome, the rebels believe a final peace can be signed within days.

Any signing will then open discussions on a ceasefire, and it will not cover the ongoing conflict in the western region of Darfur. But it would be a major step forward in a war that has cost more than 2m lives.