WHILE headlines have shifted to Ethiopia, Sudan is still simmering - in need of peace and food for the war-torn south. The Bush administration is signaling the high priority it places on finding solutions there by sending new Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Herman Cohen to Khartoum on his first overseas mission this week.
Ambassador Cohen will be trying to promote progress toward peace in the north-south civil war and to address some serious snags in the international relief effort aimed at getting food into the south before parts of it are cut off by torrential rains, US officials say.
The new US Africa chief had been slated to visit all the countries in the Horn of Africa until last week's coup attempt in Ethiopia. ``It just didn't seem right to go on to Addis Ababa after President Mengistu had just had much of his military leadership shot,'' a high-ranking US official says.
But Sudan is a worthwhile mission on its own, he says. A de facto cease-fire is in place, and Sudan's government accepts principles of a peace plan first worked out with the rebel Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) in November.
Now, the task is to encourage negotiations between the government and the SPLA on new constitutional arrangements, a senior US official says. The US has not been asked to broker a settlement, but it wants to prod both sides to the negotiating table, he says. The SPLA seeks elimination of Islamic law from Sudan's legal code and political reforms giving the south more autonomy.
Many US observers remain suspicious of both sides' eagerness to negotiate. US officials say the SPLA seems to be dragging its feet on moves to start constitutional talks. But officials also remain unsure if Sudan's prime minister is really ready to deal with the SPLA. Congressional aides who follow the situation say Sudan's prime minister still seems to be presenting a fa,cade of seeking peace.
``We need to be willing to use our influence to try to push both sides along,'' the high-ranking official says. ``But it's not just a question of the US using its leverage, as some think. Our leverage out there goes only so far.''
Problems also continue in the international effort to get food into the war zones. Relief officials have predicted tens of thousands of deaths unless food supplies are delivered before the rainy season.
So far, US officials say only about half of the 120,000 tons of food needed are in place. For a variety of reasons, barges and trains in Sudan that were supposed to move the food south have been held up. Cohen will be trying to ``cut through the red tape and get things moving,'' the senior official says.
A much-delayed train carrying food for government and rebel-held towns in south Sudan finally left Saturday following a UN-sponsored agreement between the two sides. The Sudanese government's Relief and Rehabilitation Commission told Reuters that the train, carrying 1,440 tons of food, left the town of al-Muglad on a 160-mile journey south to the town of Aweil.
Congressional concern remains high. A new letter to the administration is being prepared concerning the food delays and other incidents, aides say. A congressional aide reports that in late April 750 tons of relief grain was misappropriated in the town of Aweil by a local official. The US cost to fly in the grain was about $1 million, he says.
This congressional source adds that trains and barges have not been held up primarily because of strikes or simple red tape, but because some in the Sudanese military oppose the idea of dropping off relief supplies in SPLA-controlled areas as the government earlier agreed.
``Once again we're back in a situation where the government is the main obstacle'' in the relief effort, he says.