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Sudan Government, Rebels Reported Very Close to Peace Deal - 2003-10-21

Nearly a decade after the first peace talks were held to end Sudan's civil war, mediators and observers say there appears to be a real commitment among the warring parties to clinch a peace agreement. The consensus among the participants in the Sudanese peace process is that the Kenyan-sponsored talks are tantalizingly close to achieving a peace settlement.

The latest round of talks between Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Taha and the leader of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army, John Garang, began Friday in the Kenyan town of Naivasha.

Underscoring the importance of peace in Sudan, Secretary of State Colin Powell came to Kenya on Tuesday to give the peace talks a final push.

The first face-to-face meeting between Vice President Taha and Mr. Garang last month in Naivasha resolved what had been one of the most difficult issues in the peace process: a security arrangement for the government-controlled Arab north and the rebel-controlled largely Christian south.

With one key obstacle to peace out of the way, Kenyan Foreign Minister Kalonzo Musyoka says Mr. Taha and Mr. Garang are showing confidence in the talks that neither side has shown before.

"They asked me to quote them and say the peace process is now irreversible," he said. "So, the best we can do is to encourage them to come up with a final peace agreement as soon as it is practicable."

Regional efforts to mediate a peace deal in Sudan have continued since 1994. The peace talks have been held under the auspices of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, a seven-member body that includes Sudan and Sudan's regional neighbors, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Uganda and Somalia.

Nairobi-based political analyst Mustapha Hassouna says Kenya volunteered to take the lead in mediation efforts because the conflict in Sudan was damaging Kenya's reputation as a peaceful state and hindering prospects for regional development. Kenya is East Africa's largest economy and depends heavily on its tourism industry.

"The Republic of Kenya is at the receiving end of several thousand illicit weapons that have made their way into the country from the Sudanese conflict, and I think this in itself is very important for Kenya to be seen at the frontline in combating the illicit flow of arms and also creating a more conducive atmosphere for peace within the region," explained Mr. Hassouna.

But years of negotiations between the government and the rebels led nowhere in the 1990s. The fighting, which began in 1983, eventually took the lives of two million people and displaced nearly five million others, mostly in the south.

Because the war was largely a regional matter, the United States and other Western countries paid little interest in efforts to stop the bloodshed in Sudan.

But the West's attitude toward Sudan changed dramatically after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States.

Historic ties between al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and the government in Khartoum prompted Washington and other Western countries to commit themselves more deeply to the Sudanese peace process. One important aim is to bring stability to Sudan and to deny Osama bin Laden a staging ground for terrorist activities in East Africa.

The United States has been pressing the warring parties to negotiate in good faith. The Bush administration has been alternately threatening and encouraging the Sudanese government. Threatening it with additional sanctions if it does not cooperate fully in the peace process and offering to lift sanctions and removing Sudan from the U.S. list of terrorism sponsors, if the Sudanese government cooperates.

With Kenyan mediators prodding both sides to come to an agreement and the United States pressuring the government in Khartoum to compromise, Mr. Hassouna says the peace talks are finally showing a real promise of achieving their objective. "In the past, most of the discussions that were taking place were very theoretical," he reminded. "They were talking about possibilities and probabilities. Today - right now - what we are seeing is a considerable effort by the two players to talk real matters."

Observers say some of those remaining matters, including how to share power and oil resources, are still contentious enough to derail the process before the talks are scheduled to adjourn Saturday.

Kenyan Foreign Minister Musyoka says he believes Secretary of State Powell's planned visit to the site of the talks Wednesday is aimed at getting assurances that both sides will stay on track toward signing a peace agreement.