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Sudanese Rebel Leader, Vice President Scheduled to Meet - 2003-09-04

The leader of Sudan's main rebel group is in Nairobi for face to face talks with Sudan's first vice president.

Sudan Peoples' Liberation Army chairman John Garang told reporters he is going to his meeting with First Vice President Ali Osman Taha with an open mind and heart.

At the meeting, organized by the Kenyan government and the seven-nation Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, the two men are expected to discuss key differences that threaten to end a year of peace talks in Kenya.

In a statement read by rebel information officer Samson Kwaje, Mr. Garang said the time has come for the two sides to reach a just and lasting peace agreement.

"The parties have negotiated enough and time has come for decision-making," he said. "I and my team are going to Naivasha ready and prepared to take tough decisions to bring a just peace to Sudan."

The two sides have not agreed on several issues.

The Sudanese government says the country's capital, Khartoum, should be ruled by Islamic law, while the rebels of the SPLA say the capital should be secular to accommodate the largely Christian south. The rebels call for two separate armies, one in the north and one in the south, during a six-year interim period spelled out in an earlier agreement, while the government says the country should have only one army.

The SPLA and government also have to figure out how to share positions in the government and the civil service, and how to distribute the country's wealth, which largely originates from the south's rich oil fields.

Analysts say both sides are under tremendous pressure to reach a peace agreement in the next round of formal negotiations, which is scheduled to begin next Wednesday.

In July, the U.S. special envoy to Sudan, John Danforth, said it is make-or-break time for the peace talks. Mr. Danforth hinted that the United States and other international partners could lose interest in Sudan if the two sides fail to end their 20-year civil war, in which an estimated two million people have been killed.

Mr. Garang also took the opportunity to express support for a six-week cease-fire that the government signed Wednesday with Sudan Liberation Movement rebels in western Darfur region. The two sides had been fighting for several months in a dispute that falls outside the peace process.