Will US step in and 'protect' Sudan from Libya?

The United States has been alerted to the weakness of Sudan in the face of possible subversion by Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi -- and has been persuaded of the need of beef up the Sudanese regime of Gen. Jaafar Nimeiry.

That was the perception of the Egyptians on the return to Cairo early this week of then Vice-President Hosni Mubarak from a visit to Washington to ring the alarm bells there about what Libya might be planning to do in Sudan.

Within 48 hours of getting back home, Mr. Mubarak finds himself thrust into the No. 1 position in Egypt, following the assassination of President Sadat. All signs point now to Washington's inclination to do what it can to strengthen mr. Mubarak's position and to respond even more favorably than before to what he might request of the US.

So what is the US prepared to do in response to his plea last weekend, made to both Mr. Reagan and Defense Secretary Weinberger, to do something quickly to help Sudanese President Numeiry"

The current issue of newsweek magazine speaks of the possibility of the US sending "antitank missiles, antiaircraft weapons, and other arms to the Sudanese , along with US instructors to train them." Newsweek also spoke of possible Saudi willingness to help Sudan pay for new weapons, "perhaps including F-5E jet fighters."

Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been drawwing closer in recent months in their perception of the Libyan threat to Sudan. Both see in any successful Libyan subversion of Sudan an intensification of the Libyan threat to themselves, and, through the Libyans, of the possibility of further Soviet encroachment in their area.

Mr. Sadat, in an interview with the Egyptian magazine Mayo shortly before his murder, spoke of a Libyan plan to invade Sudan. He added that Colonel Qaddafi's increasing ties with the Soviet Union were "a danger that should not be minimized."

In an interview with another Egyptian magazine, Rose al-Youssef, the Egyptian Defense minister, Gen. Abdul Halim Abu Ghazzala, called attention to Soviet ties with both Libya and Ethiopia. "All indications," he said, "point to a Soviet plan that aims at destroying the forces that oppose Soviet control of the region."

Sudan has been dangerously exposed ever since Libyan leader Qaddafi sent his troops into neighboring Chad last year. More than 6,000 of them are still there.

Colonel Qaddafi move into Chad on the invitation of Chadian President Ghoukouni Woddei to help the latter win the civil war he had been waging against his former defense minister, Hissein Habre. Both the late President Sadat and Sudanese President Nimeiry, pro-Western in their leanings, had been increasingly contemptuous and suspicious of Colonel Qaddafi's intentions. Their suspicions grew as Qaddafi began to stockpile Soviet arms and to draw closer to Moscow.

Particularly disturbing for both Egypt and Sudan was the Friendship treaty which Colonel Qaddafi signed in August of this year with the Soviet client states Ethiopia and South Yemen. The Libyan leader was in Aden, the South Yemen capital, for the signature of this treaty at the very moment that the US Sixth Fleet was shooting down two of his fighter aircraft over the Gulf of Sidra.

Sudan has a long common border with Ethiopia in the east, just as it has with Libya and Chad in the west. South Yemen controls the southern entrance to the Red Sea, and thus the only sea route from the Indian Ocean to Sudan's ports.

What has made danger signals flash in Sudan and Egypt in recent weeks in an outbreak of border incidents on the Chad-Sudan border. Simultaneously there has been an upsurge of activity across the Red Sea in north Yemen by the communist-sponsored National Democratic Front. Sudan and Egypt see Libya's hand in the border incidents. Saudi Arabia sees pro-Moscow South Yemen's hand in the communist-sponsored activity in North Yemen. All three -- Sudan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia -- believe Colonel Qaddafi's oil money is financing these disturbing operations on both sides of the Red Sea.

Sudan is vulnerable because of its vast size (geograhically it is the biggest country in Africa), its relatively small population (just under 20 million), its poverty, and its almost complete lack of a modern communications network.

If Libya made a serious lightning move to overrun all or parts of the Sudanese western provinces of Kordofan and Darfur, Sudan, with its present resources, would be hard pressed to counter it.

Complicating things in the fact that Colonel Qaddafi could argue that Sudan and Egypt are striking at him through their support of former Chadian Defense Minister Habre. It is no secret that Egypt and sudan have provided asylum and backing for Mr. Habre ever since he withdrew to the Abeche area near the Sudan border after his defeat by combined Libyan and Goukouni forces. Habre's guerrillas have been involved in the border incidents in the Abeche area reported in recent weeks.

Sudanese President Nimeiry has placed the entire blame for the incidents on Libya and has complained to the UN Security Council. The Sudanese defense forces and Habre's guerrillas claim to have shot down at least one Italian-built Libyan plane.

But the makeup of the forces engaging Habre's guerrillas is not 100 percent clear. It is possible they may include members of a proivate army loyal to Acyl Achmet, nominal foreign minister of Chad, and long the most pro-Libyan of the feuding key figures in his country's internal politics.

President Woddie has indicated during the summer that, having used the Libyans to help him defeat Habre, he wants to loosen his dependence on them and get them out of Chad. Even more significantly, Woddei has turned for economic help to France. Consequently, there is a possibility that Qaddafi may be turning sour on Goukhouni and making Mr. Achmet the man through whom he will advance whatever plans he might have to strengthen the Libyan grip on Chad.

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