As Dry Season Nears, Sudan Rebels Are on Solid Ground

As the rains draw to a close in the lush bush of southern Sudan, the commanders of a 14-year-old rebellion are contemplating a dry-season campaign that could - they hope - finally end four decades of unrest in the giant country.

The guerrilla fighters of Col. John Garang's Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) say that the capture of Juba, the main town in southern Sudan, would finally bring about de facto independence from the Arabic north for south Sudan's black, mainly non-Muslim peoples.

The first port on the Nile south of the vast Sudd swamps, Juba also has the only major airport in the region. For Thomas Cirillo, commander of the SPLA forces to the south of the town, its significance is obvious.

"Juba is their logistical center for most of southern Sudan," he says. "If we take it will be very difficult for them to come again and attack" rebel-held areas.

Popular but often ill-organized, the SPLA has seen its fortunes wax and wane sharply over the past six years, from division and near defeat in 1991 to battlefield victories and strategic dominance in the early part of this year. March was the SPLA's finest month, when a series of attacks captured major government bases at Yei and Kaya and secured the vital supply route across the Ugandan border at Kajo Kaji.

According to Commander Cirillo, the SPLA will resume its offensive when October brings an end to the rains, which make southern Sudan's dirt roads almost impassable. Surrounded on three sides and with its river communications threatened, Juba is finally ready to fall, he claims.

The thirtysomething Cirillo typifies the SPLA's low profile, low- tech war. His headquarters is, he admits, wherever he happens to find himself. He travels with a small escort, a radio, and a single four-wheel-drive vehicle. The SPLA may be successful of late, but it remains very poor.

Government forces at Juba still enjoy access to weapons and, it is alleged, volunteers from friendly Islamic states such as Iraq and Iran, including air support from several Hind helicopter gunships and Mig 23 jets. On the dirt roads of the SPLA's "New Sudan," on the other hand, it is common to see families tramping along in single file, led by ragged fathers carrying AK-47 rifles. In this war-torn region, where 4.5 million people have been displaced by conflict, civilians and rebel forces have become inextricably intertwined.

Military and diplomatic observers agree that the SPLA's task has been made much easier by the ideological zeal of the Islamic regime in the capital, Khartoum. Since seizing power in 1989, the government has economically and politically isolated Sudan.

The US policy of "constructive engagement" with Khartoum was badly dented by the involvement of Sudanese fundamentalists in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. And Egypt accused Sudan of organizing a 1995 assassination attempt on President Mubarak.

By backing rebels in their countries, Sudan has earned the enmity of Uganda, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, all of which now quietly permit Sudanese rebels to resupply from their territory. And Arab opposition in the north has now allied itself with the SPLA to form a common front to combat the government in Khartoum.

A series of peace initiatives in recent years, including efforts by former United States President Carter, have foundered.

For its part, the SPLA has little faith that any internal change in Khartoum will produce a government it can talk to. Nor does it believe in the sincerity of an agreement signed by Khartoum with breakaway rebel groups in April, which would allow a referendum on southern independence in four years' time.

According to James Duko, a senior rebel official, the deal was an attempt to buy time and diplomatic kudos following government military defeats in March.

Nor does the SPLA have any faith in talk of internal coups or reforms within Khartoum. "It is unlikely that any new government resulting from a coup will produce a more favorable government," Mr. Duko says. "The only ... people from the north that could help us are already with us."

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