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Sudan's Energy Minister Reportedly Cancels Key Kenya Trip

Sudan's energy minister has reportedly canceled a visit to Kenya next week to conclude an oil deal reached between the two countries in August. The report of the cancellation has yet to be confirmed by officials in Khartoum and Nairobi, but it has deepened speculation by analysts that relations between Khartoum and Nairobi have become fragile since Somali pirates last month hijacked a ship carrying a controversial shipment of arms. From Nairobi, VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu has details.

Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper says sources inside the Khartoum government confirmed that Sudan's Energy Minister Zubain Mohamed Salih, has canceled the trip to Kenya because of the ongoing controversy over the destination of the arms shipment aboard the hijacked Ukrainian freighter MV Faina.

The energy minister was expected to conclude a deal to begin exporting 500 million barrels of crude oil every month to Kenya. The deal would allow Kenya to purchase crude from Sudan at a lower price than its current sources in the Middle East and help ease soaring fuel costs.

VOA has been unable to determine whether Mr. Salih's trip has been canceled or postponed for other reasons. But the latest news follows reports that Sudan's foreign ministry in Khartoum questioned envoys from Kenya and Ethiopia earlier this week about the shipment of arms to southern Sudan.

Pirates in Somalia seized the Ukrainian ship in late September, as it sailed toward the Kenyan port of Mombasa carrying a cargo of 33 Russian-built tanks and other heavy weapons.

The Kenyan government has repeatedly said the shipment belongs to its military. But questions about the cargo's final destination grew after U.S. officials and a maritime official in Mombasa suggested that the shipment was headed for South Sudan. South Sudanese officials have denied knowing anything about it.

Last Saturday, an Ethiopian plane carrying light arms arrived in South Sudan's capital Juba. Officials in Juba and in Addis Ababa have both said the arms, which have been identified as AK-47 rifles, were samples brought in to be exhibited at a trade fair.

Khartoum and former rebels in the south signed a peace deal in 2005 to end their two-decade civil war and are now partners in a fragile unity government. The peace agreement requires the two sides to consult each other about military purchases.

But western arms analysts say that rule is widely ignored. They note that in recent years, Khartoum and South Sudan have spent large chunks of their yearly budgets on military purchases.

A referendum to determine whether the South will secede from the North is scheduled to be held in 2011. But with the vast majority of Sudan's oil wealth located in southern fields, there has been growing fear that Khartoum will not allow South Sudan to become independent without a fight.

A Sudan observer for the International Crisis Group, Fouad Hikmat, says what has surprised Khartoum is not allegations that South Sudan is secretly purchasing weapons, but that Kenya and Ethiopia - two members of the regional grouping known as IGAD which helped sponsor the 2005 peace talks - may be taking sides against Khartoum.

"This is very, very serious because instability in Sudan can have very serious ramifications on the whole region, even more than the conflict in Somalia. Sudan is very central, so it is extremely important that regional countries' approach to this very, very critical period in Sudan be very sensitive," said Hikmat.

The International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor in The Hague has asked the court for an arrest warrant for Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir on charges of genocide and war crimes committed during a separate five-year-old war in the western Darfur region of Sudan.

The Sudanese leader, who denies the charges, has vowed to resist any attempts to try him in an international court.