Sudan Peace Talks Stall, As War Continues Its Toll

Greater international economic pressure and assistance with negotiations could prompt a resolution, some experts say

BOTH sides want peace in Sudan's 11-year civil war, which has cost an estimated 1.3 million lives. But neither side has yet found a way to say so without appearing weak, according to United States diplomats.

The government and the rebels are financially strapped, and neither side can claim a decisive military advantage. Casualties, mostly civilian, exceed the highest estimates of up to 1 million dead in Rwanda's genocidal killings this year.

But neither side appears willing to give ground in negotiations. This impasse eventually can be broken, say Western diplomats and nongovernment US analysts.

To facilitate the breakthrough, greater international economic pressure could be placed on both sides and assistance given to develop better negotiating skills, these analysts suggest.

Although the two sides ended two weeks of talks on Friday, they must meet more often, says John Prendergast, co-coordinator of the Coalition for Peace in the Horn of Africa, a Washington-based coalition of private organizations. ``There needs to be nearly daily engagement.''

The talks must be conducted below the ministerial level because government ministers do not have the time needed to devote to them, he adds.

The latest negotiations here ended without any breakthrough. But the discussions were ``serious, not frivolous,'' says one Western analyst. The government and rebels have agreed to meet again in early September. Involvement in periodic talks by representatives of governments in the region could set an example for regional cooperation on settling other issues, the analyst adds.

US and European assistance welcome

Sudanese government officials and a spokesman for one of the two main rebel forces of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army say they would welcome US and European assistance in drafting detailed proposals regarding distribution of power between the central government and regions. The two sides often discuss the idea in negotiations but seldom go beyond generalities.

Rebel SPLA factions seek greater regional autonomy, or secession, as well as freedom from Muslim laws. The government favors a unified nation with some delegation of authority to regions, but insists on Muslim law for Muslim majority areas.

A new report by Human Rights Watch/Africa pins most of the deaths since the current civil war began in 1983 on abuses against civilians by warring parties. Abuses include indiscriminate shootings when towns or villages are taken over in military operations, summary executions, torture, and stealing food and livestock - which has led to starvation, the report states.

``Short of an end to the war, only the elevation of respect for human rights and humanitarian law to the top of the agenda of all parties will prevent the extinction of millions more southern Sudanese,'' says the July 7 report based on field research by Jemera Rone and Mr. Prendergast.

Bombing of civilian populations

The 279-page report cites, among examples of alleged government abuse, the torture of students who tried to escape the government-held city of Juba in 1991, and indiscriminate bombings of civilian populations. This year alone, the bombing has caused tens of thousands of people to flee camps for the displaced, exposing them to starvation and death by disease.

As an example of alleged abuses by the rebel SPLA faction led by Riek Mechar, the report quotes a Dinka survivor in the village of Paliau south of Kongor in 1991: Mr. Mechar's forces ``came in the morning and took all the cattle, shot all the men that they could, and took whatever women they could capture.''

The report blames the forces of Col. John Garang, a rival SPLA rebel leader, with imposing taxes on civilians, forcing them to carry loads for soldiers, and killing massive numbers of civilians and destroying their homes. The report also blames Colonel Garang's forces for recruiting and training teenaged and even younger children.

The authors urge an arms embargo on all sides in the conflict and prompt the UN to place human rights monitors in the southern war zone.

In terms of international attention, ``human rights has taken third place'' after the war and the humanitarian disaster, says the US diplomat. That is not likely to change ``until the war is over.''

But the war might end sooner if the international community increased pressure on Sudan's government, states Prendergast in a separate study issued in May - ``Sudanese Rebels at a Crossroads: Opportunities for Building Peace in a Shattered Land.'' Sudan's exports - which help pay for arms - should be boycotted, he says in that report. Such exports include sugar to Kuwait, cotton to Britain, camels to Egypt, cattle to Libya and Jordan, and sheep and cattle to Saudi Arabia, he adds. The African Development Bank should join most other institutions and nations in cutting off aid to Sudan, and the US should use its influence to achieve such a cutoff, he suggests.

He also urges broader involvement in peace talks, which would include local chiefs, Sudanese businessmen, and military commanders. He cites a number of local peace pacts such leaders have achieved in the past five years, often between rival tribes, over issues such as grazing lands.

But the US diplomat, who asked not to be named, contends that ``grass-roots peacemaking ... isn't going anywhere.''

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