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Sudan's Nuba Region Enjoys Moment of Peace

In a report to President Bush made public this past week, the special U.S. peace envoy to Sudan, former Senator John Danforth, sounded an optimistic note about the possible resolution of the long-standing civil war between Sudanese government troops and fighters of the rebel Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement. One of the success stories of the peace effort appears to involve a ceasefire agreement in the Nuba Mountains region of Sudan and a little-publicized monitoring program set up with U.S. help.

Army Captain Santiago Bueno is one of a handful of active duty U.S. military personnel who traveled to Sudan to help set up what is called the Nuba Mountains Joint Military Commission, the JMC.

Fewer than 50 commission personnel, led by a Norwegian general and including five former American soldiers, are monitoring a temporary cease-fire between Sudanese government troops and rebels of the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement, the SPLM.

Captain Bueno, 33, says since the JMC has begun operating, there has been clear evidence of eased tensions. He says busloads of people, displaced by years of fighting in the 80,000 square kilometer Nuba region of south-central Sudan, have begun returning home and are being reunited with family members who stayed behind. "Seeing people and families reunited there at the bus stop was, I guess, an immediate impact because a lot of people fled and now they are returning," the captain recalled, "and that was really neat to see."

But Captain Bueno says there is additional evidence of an improved atmosphere in the Nuba area because of the truce, hammered out in Switzerland in January with U.S. mediation. He says the two sides in the civil war have agreed independently to an informal "shopping agreement" allowing unarmed fighters to cross battle lines to trade at local markets. "It is really awesome when you think about it," he says. "These guys, you know, they are shopping, crossing lines and shopping in each others' markets."

In addition, demining operations are under way in the Nuba Mountains involving small squads of a State Department-sponsored quick reaction de-mining force.

The image of returning families, demining operations and rival combatants visiting markets is a remarkable contrast, considering what former-Senator Danforth recalls in his report to the president. He says late last year he received a promise from the government in Khartoum that he could travel to the Nuba Mountains. But two days before making the trip, government gunners shelled the airstrip where he was scheduled to land.

He recalls another instance in which Sudanese officials promised not to target civilians in the area. But he says three days after that, a military aircraft strafed a World Food Program feeding center, killing at least 17 civilians.

With a population estimated at just over one million people, the Nuba Mountains region is considered an area under African and Christian influence. It has been under siege for almost two decades by forces of Sudan's Muslim government.

U.S. officials say Khartoum used not only military force, but also starvation, as a weapon against residents of the Nuba, barring most relief shipments to reinforce food pressures on the population.

Mr. Danforth calls the Nuba cease-fire "extraordinary." He says the people there have been given a new life because the truce is holding, monitors are arriving and aid is flowing. He says it is providing what he terms a "powerful argument" for peace elsewhere in Sudan.

But the cease-fire is only a temporary truce. It is scheduled to expire in late July. UN, U.S. and other international officials hope it will be extended, calling an extension essential if the Nuba people are to move out of their isolation and benefit from long-term development efforts.