Breaking Sudan's Impasse

THE new military rulers of Sudan are apparently serious about ending six years of civil war. That war has pushed an already poor country toward economic collapse. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have perished, many from starvation. The junta's first steps toward peace have included a proposed amnesty for the southern Sudanese who've been fighting the government and announcement of a further, one-month ceasefire. The guns have been quiet for the past two months, a result of an earlier ceasefire initiated by rebel leader John Garang. Mr. Garang agreed to stop the combat and allow international relief workers access to the south's thousands of refugees who are crowded into temporary camps with sparse, if any, food.

Reports now indicate that mass starvation will be avoided this year. But without a clear-cut end to the war, the conditions for new famine remain in place. Humanitarian considerations alone demand full support, both within Sudan and from other countries, for the current effort at peacemaking.

The generals who overthrew Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi last weekend acted out of frustration. The army, its own resources misdirected and wasted, has been pushing for an end to the war since late 1988. The civilian regime, Sudan's first democratically elected government in decades, had opened negotiations with the rebels but appeared overly cautious to its critics. Mr. al-Mahdi was caught in a political bind on the key issue of imposing Islamic law on the Christian and animist southern regions - the issue that in fact had sparked the war. Those sensitive negotiations now fall to coup leader Gen. Omar Hassan al Bashir, a man presumably much less constrained by political alliances.

Military coups are nothing new for Sudan. The country has had four in 33 years of independence. This one may have been necessary to break a political impasse, but we hope, before too long, to see Sudan back on the track to democracy.

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