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Sudan's Government Accepts US Peace Proposal

Sudan's government has accepted a revised U.S. proposal to protect civilians in the country's 19-year-old civil war. Sudan's government is hopeful this will revive U.S. peace efforts that were suspended last month.

The bombing of civilian targets has been the major area of disagreement between the U.S. peace envoy for Sudan, former Senator John Danforth, and the government in Khartoum.

Sudan's government says it does not intentionally target civilians in its war against rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Army. But it says the rebels use schools and hospitals as a cover for their military forces, and therefore these buildings are legitimate targets. The rebels deny using civilian buildings for shelter.

Soon after Mr. Danforth's visit in February, a Sudanese government helicopter fired at a U.N. food distribution center in the south, killing 17 civilians. Sudan's government said the attack was a mistake. But the United States announced it was suspending its peace efforts until such attacks stop.

Charge d'affaires at the Sudanese Embassy in Nairobi, Mohamed Dirdeiry, has said his government has agreed to stop bombing civilian targets. He said the Khartoum government is doing this to comply with the U.S. proposal that also calls for the rebels to stop abusing civilians.

"Once the aim and the goal is protecting civilians from all types of risks, to single out only aerial bombardment is totally unfair. We have also to speak about shelling which is mainly undertaken by the SPLA. We have also to speak about laying of landmines. We have also to speak about using civilian facilities by the SPLA as military facilities," he said. "If we are having in hand a global proposal which is speaking about protection of civilians, not only stopping aerial bombardment, we are ready to go for it," he said.

The U.S. proposal has already been accepted by the rebels. Now that Sudan has agreed to it, Mr. Dirdeiry has said, the peace process can move ahead. "I think that was the only obstacle we were having. And right now once we have removed that this means that we have cleared the way for sitting together with the rebel movement and also with the new factor of the U.S. involvement in order to reach a comprehensive settlement," Mr Dirdeiry said.

But the U.S. government has reacted cautiously. In a statement it said, "obtaining a signature to an agreement is not our primary objective in this exercise. The history of Sudan is strewn with agreements and commitments that have never been implemented. The only way to break this vicious cycle is for the parties to the conflict to live up to their word and for international monitors to confirm compliance on the ground."

Southern Sudanese rights groups are also skeptical. They charge that the government's latest concession is a face-saving mechanism to stave off criticism of last month's attack.