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Sudan Government, Rebels Blame Each Other for New Fighting - 2002-08-09

The government of Sudan and southern rebels are blaming each other for a new outbreak of fighting in the south. The clashes raise questions about the new Sudanese peace talks scheduled to start Monday in Kenya.

A senior official with the Sudanese embassy in Nairobi, Mohamed Dirdeiry, says rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Army, SPLA, are shelling civilians in the town of Lafon, in Eastern Equatoria, about 200 kilometers from the Ugandan border.

"The shelling is indiscriminate," he said. "It's targeting military troops as well as civilians. We feel that what is happening is completely unnecessary. And we feel that it is completely also uncalled for at this time when we are gearing up towards having these round of negotiations. We feel also it is against or a violation to the agreement which we negotiated with SPLM/SPLA on protection of civilians under the auspices of the Americans."

Mr. Dirdeiry said he believes many civilians have been killed since the shelling began on Wednesday, but he does not have any casualty figures.

SPLA spokesman George Garang says Lafon is "our territory, captured from the SPLA by the government one week ago." Mr. Garang denies that rebel forces have killed any civilians in Lafon, saying that the government has already chased them all away.

Mr. Garang charges that it is the government of Sudan that is guilty of attacking civilians.

"There are no civilians in Lafon," he said. "And if the government is respecting that agreement, why is it bombing areas in western Upper Nile? Why is the helicopter gunships they are trying I mean to displace people in Tiam? Why is it bombing the civilians in Koech, if the government is trying to say that that agreement signed between them and the Americans is working? They should not be bombing areas in western Upper Nile."

Both Mr. Dirdeiry and Mr. Garange say the new fighting proves that the other side is not serious about the new peace talks, which open Monday in the Kenyan town of Machakos.

The SPLA has been fighting the government of Sudan for the last 19 years. There was a major breakthrough in peace negotiations last month when the two sides signed a deal offering the south a referendum on secession after a six-year transition.

Monday's talks will focus on the sharing of wealth and power and negotiating for a cease-fire.