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Sudan Peace Talks Expected to Resume Thursday - 2003-01-22

Representatives of the Sudanese government and the country's main rebel group are expected to formally resume peace talks on Thursday, following informal discussions in Nairobi Wednesday.

It has taken some skillful mediation to get the two sides back to the negotiating table.

Talks between the government of Sudan and rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Army were supposed to start last Wednesday, but the government refused to attend. The government argued that the agenda, discussion of three disputed areas, was outside the mandate of the talks.

Three days of informal discussions were hastily arranged. It was finally agreed that the talks would officially begin with the subjects that were being discussed when talks broke off in November, namely, power and wealth sharing.

However, the atmosphere of the talks has already been somewhat marred by accusations from each side that the other has violated a cease-fire agreement that is supposed to last until March.

Official Sudanese state radio said the army repulsed a rebel attack in Sudan's oil-rich Unity State.

A rebel spokesman, George Garang, denies this. He charged that it was the government that went on the offensive. "It always seems when we start negotiating with the government of Sudan they always attack on the eve of negotiations. We are not surprised that they are doing the same again. We know that they are not interested in peace. We know that they think the military option is preferable to them," Mr. Garang said.

The government rejects Mr. Garang's claims. But both sides say they will not let the military activities in Unity State affect the talks.

According to Mohamed Dirdeiry, a senior diplomat at the Sudanese Embassy in Nairobi, the important point is that the cease-fire agreement has reduced the level of fighting dramatically. "It seems that the cessation of hostilities is holding, all in all. Yes, there are some violations. We have made some complaints against the [rebels] and I think also they have made the same. But the cessation of hostilities is a sort of, right now, an observed cessation of hostilities," Mr. Dirdeiry explained.

The group mediating the talks, the regional Inter Governmental Authority on Development, has also set up a channel of communication to discuss alleged cease-fire violations.

The talks are scheduled to last for about five weeks, with a break for the Muslim Haj on February 5.