Sudan Rebels Court US Congressmen

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

SUDANESE rebel leader Col. John Garang threw a huge party in the bush last week complete with singing, dancing, and traditional costumes.

And he may have scored one of his biggest public relations victories in several years, just as Sudan's government is finally talking peace: Three members of the US Congress and film crew for a United States television network showed up for the event, by special invitation.

``We haven't seen a bathroom for several days,'' said a weary Gary Ackerman, Democratic representative from New York, as he told reporters here about the unusual festivity and his meeting with Colonel Garang.

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``They put on a real tour de force,'' he said.

At least 3,000 people showed up at the small town of Torit, which Garang's Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) seized a few weeks ago. The crowd was about half military and half civilian, including many children.

``They were rolling. ... They were trying to get across a message,'' Mr. Ackerman said.

The apparent message was two-fold:

The SPLA is in charge in the south. In fact the rebels now control almost the entire deep south of Sudan, with the exception of Juba. They have, however, surrounded the city and are threatening to take it, too.

Garang is a decent guy.

To bolster this image, Garang made a promise to his distinguished guests - Ackerman, Sen. Gordon Humphrey (R) of New Hampshire and Rep. Frank Wolf (R) of Virginia. He said he will allow safe, overland passage through SPLA-held territory of food relief destined for civilians in Juba or other places still in government-hands.

But the rebel leader wants international assurances that such food will not fall into the hands of the Sudanese military.

Garang has made similar offers before, but they usually bog down in disagreement with the government over details.

Still, Julia Taft, a relief official with the US Agency for International Development, says she welcomes the offer.

And, regardless of what happens to his latest food relief plan, the party in the bush seems likely to work in Garang's favor.

He has gained for his SPLA free access to US network television. And he appears to have won some additional congressional support.

The three members of Congress, for example, arrived here with praise for Garang's proposal. And the colonel knows that the more international support he can glean prior to any peace talks, the stronger his bargaining position will be at a negotiating table with the government of Sudanese President Sadiq Al-Mahdi.

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