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Sudanese North-South Talks on Hold - 2004-08-31

While the world's attention is focused on the 18-month conflict in the Darfur region of western Sudan, talks to end bloodletting in the southern part of Sudan have disappeared from the public eye.

There are no negotiations taking place in the Kenyan town of Naivasha, where the Sudanese government and the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement have been meeting to stop 21 years of war between them.

The talks, aimed at giving the south of the country greater autonomy, were quietly adjourned July 28. The Kenyan mediator, retired General Lazaro Sumbeiywo, says he does not know when the negotiations will resume.

He says Sudanese government officials told him the government was too busy with Darfur to come to Naivasha and continue with the talks.

"I went to Khartoum two-weeks ago, and they requested that they deal first with the issue of the U.N.," he said.

The United Nations had given Khartoum until the end of August to improve security in Darfur or face unspecified sanctions.

The Darfur conflict, which began 18-months ago, has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced more than a million more.

But the Sudanese government maintains it is committed to the Naivasha talks. In an interview with VOA, Sudan's foreign minister, Mustafa Osman Ismail, said the subject was high on the agenda of his recent meeting with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

"Jack Straw is rather worried that the issue of Darfur [will] overcome what is going on in Naivasha, we should not forget Naivasha while we are concentrating in Darfur," he added. "So I told him that, yes, I fully agree with you. That is why the government is ready to continue negotiations in Naivasha as part of our comprehensive peace settlement in Sudan."

Mr. Ismail said the Naivasha talks are one of what he called three platforms to bring peace to Sudan. The Naivasha talks, he says, are supposed to settle the north-south conflict, talks are under way in Nigeria are to resolve the Darfur problem and discussions are taking place in Egypt to improve relations with opposition political parties and trade unions.

But the fact that the Naivasha talks have been suspended indefinitely has some analysts worried.

The head of a Nairobi-based research organization, Security Research and Information Center, retired Colonel Jan Kamenju, says the Darfur situation will have a big effect on the outcome of the Naivasha talks.

"One of the issues is the eroding of the trust between the two parties, between the government and the SPLM," said Mr. Kamenju. "So, what happens when the government shows that they cannot be trusted in handling the case in Darfur? It means that there is an erosion of the confidence that the negotiators need in order to get to an agreed position."

Mr. Kamenju says the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement rebels in particular may feel betrayed and may doubt the sincerity of the government to live peacefully with southerners when there is such bloodshed in Darfur.

The Sudanese civil war began in 1983, when southerners, angered by decades of political, economic, and religious repression, formed the Sudan People's Liberation Movement and Army to fight for their rights.

The north, where the government is based, is primarily Muslim and controls the revenues of Sudan's rich oil fields located in the south. Southerners, in contrast, are largely impoverished Christians or followers of traditional African religions.

Human-rights groups over the years have accused the government of committing numerous violations, including forcing non-Muslim southerners to follow Muslim law, enslaving southerners and bombing villages located near oil fields to clear the area.

The government has accused the rebels of trying to overthrow the government to gain political power. Human rights groups have also criticized the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement rebels for committing atrocities against some southerners.

Groundwork for the current talks was laid a decade ago by a seven-nation grouping called the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, which is sponsoring the talks.

In the two years since the Naiwasha negotiations began, the two sides have signed six protocols that, among other things, spell out precise arrangements on how to share the country's wealth and power.

Mr. Sumbeiywo, the Kenyan mediator, says only small technical details regarding the protocols' implementation need be worked out before the final peace accord can be signed.