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Sudan: Civil War a Hot Topic for US Congress - 2002-06-06

The U.S. effort to help end the long-running civil war in Sudan was the subject of a congressional hearing on Capitol Hill. Witnesses questioned the sincerity of the Sudanese government's efforts to achieve a settlement, and the hearing also focused on the role Sudan's oil reserves are playing in the conflict:

The human price of Sudan's more than three decade-long civil war is well known: two-million dead, four-million internally displaced, 500,000 refugees.

President Bush last year appointed Former Senator John Danforth as his special envoy for Sudan. His report said neither the Islamic government in Khartoum nor the Sudan People's Liberation Movement in the South could win. But Mr. Danforth said the U.S. role, in conjunction with other countries, needs to be stepped up. Among other steps, the administration recently appointed a charge d'affaires in Khartoum, as part of that effort. But despite progress - such as a cease-fire in the Nuba mountains region of Sudan allowing aid to get through - major problems continue.

Roger Winter of the U.S. Agency for International Development, says the government of Sudan continues to send contradictory signals about its commitment to humanitarian efforts and peace. "The government of Sudan regularly creates bureaucratic restrictions and operational barriers that impede the delivery of assistance to those in need," he says. "Aid agencies are routinely denied access to many areas and civilians are directly targeted in some instances. These obstacles are so consistent as to amount to a deliberate strategy."

A number of lawmakers sharply criticized the Khartoum government for continuing attacks on civilians. Congressman Tom Lantos. "Government attacks on civilians in the Upper Nile region have escalated," says Congressman Tom Lantos. "Civilian abductions continue unabated, and according to Senator Danforth himself, there has been a great deal of confusion over the days of tranquility for humanitarian programs."

In a letter to the committee, Sudan's ambassador in Washington did not respond to these allegations. However, the Sudanese government has reacted angrily to a provision in House-passed legislation concerning Sudan. The Sudan Peace Act, approved by the House last year, calls for barring foreign companies doing business in Sudan from raising funds in U.S. capital markets.

The Bush administration opposes this, and has tried to prevent a similar version of the bill from moving ahead in the Senate. The administration's top official for Africa, Walter Kansteiner, called the bill's language political interference in capital markets. He promptly found himself engaged in this sharp exchange with Democratic Congressman Lantos:

Lantos: I can't accept the fact that you seriously are making such statements.

Kansteiner: Absolutely, I mean the precedent....

Lantos: Well, come back to this planet! Because economics and politics are not going to be divorced either in the Sudan or elsewhere.

Kansteiner: And when you start interfering directly in your capital markets, you're playing with fire.

U.S. companies are currently barred from making any new investments in Sudan. Foreign oil companies are established there. Michael Young, chairman of the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom, calls the Danforth report flawed and says oil is an important point of leverage. "Whether or not Khartoum can win the war is not the question," says Mr. Young. "The point is that Khartoum thinks it can win the war, especially with hundreds of millions of dollars in oil revenue pouring in. It thus currently has no incentive to end the fighting and neither Senator Danforth nor the Bush Administration have pointed to one."

Sudan's government was criticized on other fronts, including the practice of slavery, and continuing support for terrorism.

Mr. Kansteiner said a key pillar of U.S. policy is to deny terrorists refuge in Sudan. He says the administration still has concerns about Sudanese government support for certain groups connected to international terrorism, but declined to go into detail in public testimony.