Sudan: Libyan coup plot . . . or tempest in a teacup?

This dusty town's local and foreign elite is engaged in a new pastime: the piecing together of bits and pieces of the suspected Libyan attempt to overthrow the government of Sudanese President Jaafar Nimeiry.

Reports from Washington say that the threat is receding. But Sudan still contends that Libyan troops and fighter planes are massing along Libya's borders with both this country and neighboring Chad.

A Sudanese news agency dispatch, quoting an anonymous official source, repeated the claim Monday. Sudanese Minister of Information and National Guidance Mohammed Abu Saq was quoted at the same time as saying that Libya was poised to attack vital economic installations across its borders.

Yet diplomats in the Sudanese capital say that the Libyan military buildup in the south of the country where the borders of Libya, Sudan, and Chad meet has been going on for some time. ''There is no evidence that the buildup has escalated during the past week,'' one well-informed source told the Monitor.

Neither President Nimeiry nor Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi attempts to disguise his deep-seated dislike for the other. ''They hate each other. They use adjectives like 'madman' and 'crazy' when one refers to the other,'' a well-placed diplomat said.

President Nimeiry has good reason to distrust the Libyan leader. Insurgents supported by Colonel Qaddafi attempted in 1976 to overthrow Mr. Nimeiry. Several days of fighting left hundreds of Sudanese dead. Libya, moreover, harbors various Sudanese opposition groups.

Yet, interviews with government officials, diplomats, and local journalists reveal no foolproof evidence of last week's alleged attempt to overthrow Mr. Nimeiry's government.

''It's a tempest in a teacup,'' said one Sudanese source with close links to both the Sudanese government and Sudan's intelligence service.

Some sources in the Sudanese capital explain Sudan's repeated complaints of Libyan troop movements during recent days as a means of exploiting ''alarmist'' reports from Washington to draw attention to Sudanese fears and suspicions.

At first glance, Sudan's capital appears relaxed. Few, if any, signs indicate imminent danger to the security of the state. Well-informed observers point out that neither Sudanese nor Egyptian reports during the past week speak of a foiled attempt to overthrow the government. These observers add that US intelligence officials appear to be the only source for reports on the latest alleged coup attempt.

Visitors and residents of Khartoum report no increased visible military presence at possible strategic targets for a plot against the government. Activity at Khartoum airport, the country's television and radio stations, the defense ministry, the parliament, and the presidential palace are said to have been normal during the past week. The government, moreover, announced no security precautions a state may be expected to take following the uncovering of a plot.

Sudan announced the arrest of insurgents, believed to have been trained in Libya. Contradictory Sudanese statements say the arrest of the insurgents took place either three months ago or one month ago. Well-placed sources here insist that the arrest of the group, believed to consist of approximately 25 persons, did not occur during the past week.

Analysts further argue that Khartoum is physically a large city, but politically a village. Analysts and diplomats doubt whether information about a foiled plot could be effectively suppressed by the authorities. These analysts and diplomats can also find no reason why Sudan should not try to publicly benefit from the plot if it took place.

Egyptian officials have consistently played down the reports eminating from Washington. Egypt's Defense Minister Muhammad Abdul-Halim Abu Ghazzala told reporters in Cairo this weekend that there were no signs of a crisis in Sudan. He reiterated that Egypt would come to Sudan's defense whenever necessary, but that this need had not arisen.

Egypt and Sudan have a defense pact under which an unspecified number of Egyptian troops are stationed in the vicinity of the Sudanese capital. The Nile River, which flows through Sudan and into Egypt, is considered the lifeline of both countries. Egypt thus has a vital stake in the stability of Sudan and is believed to be well-versed in Sudanese affairs.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was scheduled to visit Khartoum Feb. 22 to attend the first session of the Sudanese-Egyptian Higher Council of Integration, established last October in a bid to unite the two countries. Egyptian officials cite Mr. Mubarak's visit to Khartoum as evidence that President Nimeiry's government is not in imminent danger.

The Egyptians, angry over the US handling of the issue, appear to want to disassociate themselves from the reported crisis.

''We are being implicated in US moves to which Egypt was not a party. The United States is abusing our friendship,'' one Egyptian official said, emphatically denying that Egypt had asked the US to avert Libyan moves by a show of US military strength.

''The US lacks understanding and ignores regional sensitivities,'' one ranking Egyptian official said.

Egypt is convinced that it is about to witness a comeback as a leading third-world nation during next month's nonaligned summit in Delhi. Egyptian officials fear that hints of Egyptian cooperation with the US in military moves against a fellow Arab and nonaligned country could endanger its return to prominence in both the Arab and third world.

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