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Did Libya bomb Sudan? Answer may lie in the Sudanese rebellion

By Colin LegumSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 21, 1984


The decision by Egypt and the United States to rush military support to the Sudan within days of the single hit-and-run aerial bombardment on Omdurman has triggered off an urgent debate about the nature and source of that attack.

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Ever since President Jaafar Nimeiry's regime began to feel threatened by the growing rebellion in the Christian-dominated southern part of Sudan, it has been urging President Hosni Mubarak to implement the Egyptian-Sudanese defense treaty. Simultaneously, it has been pressing the US to provide an airlift of arms.

Both Egypt and the US were reluctant at first to meet these requests because they did not wish to become involved in the Sudan's internal armed power struggle that began almost a year ago.

Following divided counsel in the US State Department and the Pentagon, Gen. Vernon Walters was sent to Sudan last week to carry out one of his by now familiar independent military assessments. At about the same time, on March 11, Presidents Nimeiry and Mubarak met at Aswan, where the Egyptian leader reportedly explained that their defense treaty did not allow for Egyptian interference in what was an internal affair.

The March 16 attack on Omdurman (one of the five towns that constitute the capital, Khartoum) therefore came as a godsend to Nimeiry. By claiming that the attack was made by Libya, he provided the external dimension needed to invoke the Egyptian-Sudan military agreement, and touched the right nerve in Washington that led to the decision to send two airborne warning and control system (AWACS) planes to Egypt this week.

Libya, though, has denied any responsibility for the attack, blaming it on rebels in the Sudan Air Force.

There is also strong support for a third view: that Nimeiry himself ordered the attack to force his reluctant Egyptian and American allies to come to his aid.

This last suspicion is not as preposterous as it seems. First, there is a dispute about the type of plane used in the attack. Nimeiry claims it was a Soviet light bomber, a Tu-22; but competent eyewitnesses insist it was a MIG-15, which has a much smaller flying range.

More important, though, is the undisclosed fact that one of the three houses bombed in Omdurman was the family home of the detained opposition leader and former Prime Minister Sadiq al-Madhi. Besides, the official claim that Khartoum's radio station was the main target failed to disclose that the building which was only lightly hit was the old radio station.

Clearly, there are important questions needing clarification before the official version of the attack is accepted.

The threat to Sudan has developed rapidly since Nimeiry decided to introduce Islamic laws and decreed Sudan an Islamic republic last November. These policies seriously upset not only the Christian-dominated southern provinces but many Muslim northerners as well.

This Muslim opposition is of two kinds: the influential, radical secularist elite object to their country being turned into a theological state, while rival groups of Islamic fundamentialists object either because they feel that the Islamic reforms don't go far enough, or because they have been introduced without proper consultation.