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Sudan Peace Process Hits Snag - 2004-04-22

Mediators at the Sudan peace talks in Naivasha, Kenya, say they will work closely with the Sudanese government and the southern-based rebel group, the Sudan People's Liberation Army, to help break the deadlock to reach a much delayed peace accord. But finding a compromise acceptable to both sides may be difficult.

The main issue causing the latest deadlock is over how to share power in Khartoum and whether strict Islamic shariah laws should be applied throughout the capital.

The Arab-Muslim government in Khartoum insists shariah must be applied. The mostly Christian and animist rebel leaders of the SPLA disagree, arguing that shariah laws have no place in a capital with a diverse population of non-Muslims.

Discussions between the two sides over the issue have been so heated that the head of the Sudanese government delegation, Vice President Ali Osman Taha, left Kenya in frustration Saturday to return to Khartoum for consultation.

Mr. Taha is expected back at the talks in Naivasha soon. But as of yet, there are no further face-to-face meetings scheduled between the vice president and the leader of the SPLA, John Garang.

The chief Kenyan mediator, Lazaro Sumbeiywo, acknowledges that there is enormous pressure building on the sponsors of the peace process, a seven-nation regional body, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, known as I-GAD to break the impasse. But Mr. Sumbeiywo says it would be wrong to assume that I-GAD alone could come up with a compromise plan to move the peace process forward.

?I-GAD has a plan, but not a plan to produce its own solution. We want the parties to have a solution of their own. We will help them to get the solution,? Mr. Sumbeiywo said.

Talks aimed at ending Sudan's 21-year civil war began nearly two-years ago. Expectations for a speedy conclusion grew dramatically last September when Sudanese Vice President Taha and SPLA's John Garang began a series of high-level negotiations.

The two sides have agreed on a number of issues, including wealth-sharing and how to manage government and SPLA armies during a six-year interim period before the south holds a referendum on self-rule.

But the overall slow progress of the talks has tested Washington's patience. During a meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell last October, Khartoum and the SPLA pledged to reach a peace accord by December 31.

Since the passing of that self-imposed deadline, the Bush administration has stepped up pressure on the warring parties to reach an accord, threatening to impose sanctions on both sides by April 21, if they were found not to be negotiating in good faith to reach an agreement.

On Wednesday, President Bush said that he felt the Sudanese government and the rebels were making good faith efforts and declined to impose sanctions.

But the status of the talks must be reviewed again in six months. If there is no peace agreement before then, analysts say, sanctions may be the only option left for the United States.