Sudanese rebel leader John Garang held talks with U.S. officials and members of Congress in Washington this past week, amid an intensified effort to end the civil war that has raged in Sudan since 1983. Both the Sudanese government and rebels are expressing hope that the peace process is ready to move forward, but they have different expectations about what role the United States should play in trying to end the war.
John Garang - leader of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army - says there is a window of opportunity for peace in Sudan. Mr. Garang told VOA during his visit to Washington that he wants the United States to pressure the Sudan's Islamic government to make peace by using as leverage Khartoum's past support for Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist network.
"I believe the United States government can use the pressure of the post-September 11 environment, in that Sudan, the Sudan government is afraid that they might be treated like the Taleban. Remember bin Laden was in the Sudan for five years. Al-Qaida was actually formed and nurtured in Sudan. And so if that fear is used and people go beyond that fear in order to pressure the government into accepting a fair and just political settlement in the country, then there can be a breakthrough," Mr. Garang says.
Mr. Garang, whose group operates in the mostly christian and animist south of the country, says a just settlement, in his view, would establish an interim confederation between the north and south. He says a referendum on self-determination for the south could follow.
Regarding Osama bin Laden, Khartoum has long maintained that the al-Qaida leader was simply a businessman when he lived in Sudan. The United States has listed Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1993, but Khartoum recently stepped up cooperation in the fight against terrorism.
In a recent interview with VOA, Sudan's Ambassador to the United States, Khidir Haroun Ahmed, says he believes the south is an integral part of Sudan. "We are one people," he declared. But the Ambassador says his government would be open to southern Sudan becoming independent - if the people of the region vote to do so in a future referendum. Mr. Ahmed says he is hopeful formal peace talks could begin soon, but he says Washington should be more neutral in its role as mediator.
"I would say that of course we encourage the United States to play a positive role in this conflict resolution by becoming a more honest broker, neutral, impartial one. We know that we are very, if you will, realistic about that. We are living in real world, there is not that kind of impartiality today. The rebel leader is in Washington today. We hope that the message he might get from this town is peace-making rather than continuation of this crazy war," Mr. Ahmed says.
Ambassador Ahmed believes the harsh criticism leveled against his government by U.S. policy-makers is the result of "misinformation from groups hostile to Sudan."
President Bush last year appointed former Senator John Danforth as his special envoy to Sudan to help broker a peace agreement. Mr. Danforth has helped negotiate a cease-fire in the Nuba Mountains region to facilitate delivery of humanitarian supplies, and he has gained agreement to other U.S. preconditions for resuming formal peace talks.
The peace process was dealt a setback, however, when a Sudanese army helicopter attacked civilians at a feeding center in the south last month, killing 17 people. Khartoum has since apologized for what it called an appalling mistake, and has agreed to allow international monitors to verify an agreement to end attacks on civilians. These developments have refocused attention on the long-running conflict.
Ethnic and religious divisions have helped fuel the civil war. The Bantu African southerners are primarily Christians and animists. The mostly Islamic government includes Christians in its leadership, but the two sides are also fighting over resources, including oil reserves. In fact, Mr. Garang says the rebels are preparing to launch attacks against oil installations in the south.
"It is within our capabilities to shut down the oil fields, because they are being used against us. With it the government is killing people in Western Upper Nile, it is displacing people. More than 100,000 people have been displaced as a result of the oil exploration and development. So there's no doubt in our minds that it is necessary to close down these oil fields if no agreement is reached on the issue of oil," he says.
Mr. Garang says the oil revenues from southern oil fields are allowing the Sudanese government to buy helicopter gunships, tanks and other sophisticated weaponry and to build its own arms industry. However, he says his movement is open to talking to oil companies about working in rebel-held territory.
Despite Mr. Garang's threat, former U.S. Ambassador to Sudan, Donald Petterson, says some real progress has been made in easing the current situation in southern Sudan. Mr. Petterson - the author of the book "Inside Sudan" told VOA he believes the United States is doing the right thing in trying to mediate an end to the Sudanese conflict. Mr. Petterson says the best chance for peace in Sudan will lie in the continued presence and participation of the United States.
"There have been some calls from some circles for additional sanctions against Sudan rather than the U.S. focus on ending the war. I think the Bush Administration has wisely decided to make an effort to participate in the international mediation to end the war, for ending the war is the most important thing that can be done given the terrible amount of destruction and loss of life that has occurred because of that war," Mr. Petterson says.
The former U.S. ambassador says he thinks a final peace agreement in Sudan would be based on several principles. These include a solution to the issue of the role of religion in the state, an agreement on the boundary between the north and south, a period of self-determination for the south, and an eventual referendum on whether the south would remain unified with the rest of Sudan. Mr. Petterson says these issues will be difficult to resolve, especially with the advent of oil production in Sudan, but he says it can be done.