Sudan Rebels See Shift in Prospects

On the front lines, rebels say rains will blunt government `final' offensive in nine-year war

THE annual rains have begun to fall on this beleaguered African nation, once again marking a change in the course of its civil war.

For nine years, the Islamic government in Khartoum has launched an offensive against Christian and animist rebels in the south during the dry season, and each year the rebels recapture fallen towns when the rains return.

This year promises to be no different. In a convincing five-pronged "final offensive" launched two months ago, troops loyal to President Umar Hassan al-Bashir have taken control of 10 southern towns previously held by the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). The government gains reached deeper into rebel territory than ever before.

But on this front line at Ngangala, where the SPLA is holding government troops only 60 miles west of rebel headquarters in Torit, General Bashir's promises to destroy the rebels this year ring hollow.

"This is the end of the big Khartoum offensive," says rebel Comdr. Oyay Deng Ajak as he surveys the town and directs a mortar to hit where two of the enemy have just taken refuge. "We still have the men and the ammunition, and will push on to Juba," the "capital" of southern Sudan and the most important southern town held by the government.

Young SPLA commanders blast the town of Ngangala from hidden positions in the hills. As the clouds of smoke rise, government soldiers dash through the haze to safer foxholes.

All that remains of the government convoy, which had orders to capture Torit, rebels claim, are 1,500 pinned-down troops, a double-barreled antiaircraft gun, a 120-mm mortar, and a 122-mm Howitzer that had fired its last round days earlier.

Twenty big trucks used by Khartoum to transport troops and supplies lie wrecked and burning across the battlefield.

"Khartoum misunderstands the nature of this war and sees it as a battle for cities," SPLA leader Col. John Garang said in an interview at a base at Kapoeta. "We expected Khartoum to take most of these towns. We retreat now, but we will lay siege to them during the rainy season."

Government troops swept along the road to Torit without protecting their flanks, rebel commanders say. When the SPLA stalled the column in Ngangala, the rebels quickly secured the surrounding hilltops and pinned down the Khartoum force.

"Bashir looks at a map of the south and sees one blue line, the Nile River," says Bishop Pride Taban of Torit. "He doesn't see any barriers, and believes he can fly here and destroy us."

Khartoum announced April 25 it had captured the key towns of Bor and Juba, and the strategic road between them. But the SPLA says the government troops will bog during the rains and will have to withdraw.

"To say that the war is coming to an end is a gross misconception," Colonel Garang says. "Even if all towns here are taken, as guerrillas we will never be finished."

Intelligence gaps have harmed both sides during the offensive, though. Relief workers in SPLA-held territories say that they were often told that all was fine, then thrown into a panic when nervous commanders appeared in the middle of the night to say that they must flee within the hour.

Bashir's Islamic military regime rose to power in 1989 when it overthrew Sudan's last elected government. In March 1991, Khartoum - which has become increasingly hard-line Muslim - reinstituted the Sharia, Islamic law. The SPLA is fighting the imposition of this code.

The government and the SPLA agreed last week to hold peace talks in Nigeria, but fighting on the ground is still heavy.

"The SPLA are always willing to have peace talks," says Justin Arop, the SPLA representative in Nairobi. "The government may have a short-term advantage after this offensive, but we will not stop the war unless there is a cease-fire."

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