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State Dept. Official: Sudanese Peace Talks Appear to be Progressing - 2002-07-12

A top U.S. official is expressing cautious optimism about efforts to end Sudan's 19-year civil war.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Walter Kansteiner briefed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday on the status of peace talks now underway in Kenya between the Sudanese government and the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army.

Some lawmakers expressed skepticism about the Sudanese government's commitment to peace amid reports it has bombed civilian targets and blocked humanitarian aid from areas controlled by the southern-based rebels.

Republican Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee said, "In the past, Khartoum, I believe, has not lived up to its agreements. Can we expect them to in the future when Khartoum continues to bomb civilians and ban relief flights leading to starvation of thousands?" Senator Frist is a doctor who has made several trips to Sudan to provide health care to victims of the civil war.

Mr. Kansteiner responded that both the government and the rebels appear to be making a concerted effort in the peace talks that began last month. "I got the sense that both sides realized that this was the first opportunity in a long time that they both have to negotiate a serious long-lasting, and I would include just, peace for that country. I was gladdened to see that they were both serious about it, but we are still in fairly early days. There are going to be some tough decisions coming up in the next few weeks, and I think it will be a tell-tale within the next few weeks where these negotiations are going."

Mr. Kansteiner stressed a top issue to be decided is the question of self-determination for the south. He asked, "What does self-determination mean in terms of autonomy and powers to the region? Does it mean they can have their own justice system? Does it mean they can have their own taxation system? Can they stand and hold an army? What does it mean for the south to say that the will of the people will be heard? Is that a referendum? And if that is a referendum or a vote? Does that come in five years, six years? Two years?"

Other issues to be decided include whether the strict Islamic sharia law would apply to the south and how all regions of the country would share oil resources and revenues.

Mr. Kansteiner said the United States is encouraging the parties to reach an agreement on a framework for peace by July 20. He praised Sudan for its assistance in the war on terrorism, but expressed concern over reports that it has attacked civilians and impeded delivery of humanitarian aid.

Republican Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas hopes Sudan's assistance in counterterrorism would not prompt the Bush administration to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses by Khartoum.

"I would hope that while they are helping us in our strategic focus right now in the war on terrorism, which is a very positive thing that they are doing, that the rest of this has to change, and this is a chance for the government of Sudan to change, and to amend its ways," he said. "If they do not, I hope we do not lose focus on these horrific human rights abuses that just continue."

The State Department official responded that he shares that sentiment. Mr. Kansteiner said the United States is creating a 25-member verification team to investigate reports of attacks on civilians. He said Washington would report any attacks as violations of the Geneva Convention, to which Sudan is a signatory.

Mr. Kansteiner added that Washington has made clear to Khartoum that there would be no chance for improved bilateral relations until the Sudanese government allows full and unhindered humanitarian access to all of the south. It is estimated some two million Sudanese have died from famine-related causes during the war. Relief officials say many more in southern Sudan could die of starvation and disease if the United Nations does not intervene.

The mainly Christian rebels have been fighting Sudan's strict Islamist government for greater autonomy and religious freedom.