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US Official Optimistic About Sudan Peace Deal by Year's End - 2003-12-10

The State Department's chief diplomat for Africa says he's optimistic that a peace deal ending Sudan's 20-year civil war can be completed by the end of the year. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Charles Snyder says only two significant issues in Kenyan-sponsored peace talks remain unresolved.

Just back from talks with the Sudanese parties in Khartoum and Kenya, Mr. Snyder said the goal of a Sudanese peace accord by year's end is within reach provided there is sufficient commitment by the Khartoum government and southern rebels.

Mr. Snyder met during his African mission with Kenyan mediators and with the two delegation chiefs in the negotiations, Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Taha and John Garang, head of the rebel Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement (SPLM).

In a talk with reporters here, Mr. Snyder noted that hopes for an early peace accord are not unrealistic, given the narrowing list of outstanding differences.

"The truth of the matter is that the parties are down to maybe two issues that separate them, both of which will require political will to compromise on, but it's not the kind of fundamental difference, a gap that they can't breach, if they really are willing to be partners, he said. "And I think that's why we are all optimistic."

Mr. Snyder pointed out that the issues still in dispute are how Sudanese revenues, including the country's growing oil income, are to be shared by the parties, and the status of three regions claimed by both sides in the conflict, the Nuba Mountains, Abyei, and the Southern Blue Nile.

According to the U.S. diplomat, the differences are "bridgeable" and that barring new hitches a basic accord can be achieved before the Christmas holiday period, especially he said, since Mr. Garang and Vice President Taha have returned to lead the negotiations at the Kenyan lake resort of Naivasha.

"They're meeting one-on-one again," he said. "The delegations have done a lot of work. But they're meeting one-on-one, which is going to be the key to this. Either they're going to be partners in peace, or this isn't going to work anyway, and they're to the point where they need to eye-ball each other and get it done."

Mr. Snyder went on to say that an offer by President Bush to host a White House event to celebrate an agreement still stands, though he heaped praise on Kenya's mediation efforts and said the main event might be a signing ceremony in Nairobi.

The Bush administration has made peace in Sudan a foreign policy priority. Secretary of State Colin Powell paid a visit to the talk site at Naivasha in late October, and held out the prospect of an end to U.S. sanctions on Sudan if an agreement was reached.

On Monday, President Bush telephoned Mr. Garang and Sudanese President Omar Hassan el-Bashir to congratulate them on the progress to date and urge them to show flexibility on the remaining differences.

Now Africa's longest running civil war, the conflict between the Islamic government in Khartoum and the mainly-Christian and animist rebels seeking autonomy for the South has killed an estimated two million people, mainly from war-related famine.