Sudanese government says U.S. will chair peace talks in Switzerland

Jan 12, 2002 (AP)

In a first for the United States, the U.S. government is to mediate peace talks between the Sudanese government and the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army, a presidential adviser said Saturday.

The talks will begin in Switzerland next week, Ghazi Salah el-Din Atabani said in a statement carried by the official Sudan News Agency.

The United States has never chaired peace negotiations since the civil war broke out in 1983.

The initiative seems to reflect increased momentum in Washington for the United States to help end the war, in which more than 2 million people are estimated to have died in fighting and attendant famines. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told Congress last year he would make a priority of the Sudanese war.

The Sudan People's Liberation Army draws support from southern Sudan, where the animist and Christian people resent rule from the Muslim-dominated population in the north.

Previous negotiations have been hosted intermittently in Nairobi by the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, a group of east and central African states.

A sticking point has long been rebel demands for the Islamic-orientated government to abolish sharia or Islamic law.

President Omar el-Bashir and the SPLA have agreed in principle on the holding of a referendum for the self-determination of what was defined as southern Sudan at the time of independence. But the SPLA wants to include other areas, such as the southwestern Nuba mountains - a demand that the government rejects.

The Atabani statement said the negotiations would aim for "the implementation of the agreement reached with the American envoy to Sudan, John Danforth, during his recent visit to Sudan."

Danforth, a former Republican senator for Missouri, met leaders of the two sides in November. He proposed a package of confidence-boosting measures beginning with a cease-fire in the Nuba mountains, a halt to aerial bombardments, the creation of "zones of tranquility" to allow the delivery of aid, and efforts to stop the practice of militia enslaving civilians.

State Department officials say the government has been receptive to each point except for a halt to aerial bombardment.

Danforth has said that if his forthcoming visit to Sudan, where he is expected to arrive Saturday, fails to yield progress, he will end his mediation.

Earlier Saturday, Danforth discussed Sudanese peace efforts with Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi in Nairobi.

The Atabani statement did not say in which city the talks would take place, how long they are scheduled to last or who would lead the government delegation.