US aids small steps toward peace in Sudan

A US peace envoy went to Sudan this week, as the warring parties held cease-fire talks in the Swiss Alps.

US efforts to assist Sudan's faltering peace process hit a snag this week. The Khartoum government refused to stop aerial bombing of civilians - a key measure outlined by peace envoy Sen. John Danforth. But the US, which is more involved than ever before in facilitating peace here, isn't giving up.

"Americans know about and care about Sudan more than they do any other country in Africa, and we need to respond to that," says one senior US official. "We would not just shake off this issue."

Mr. Danforth spent four days this week shuttling between Khartoum and the south, the epicenter of Sudan's 18-year civil war, which has claimed 2 million lives. It was his second visit to the region since being appointed in September.

Danforth has proposed four confidence-building measures: calling for a cease-fire while granting humanitarian access to the Nuba mountains; creating zones of tranquility, allowing aid workers to carry out a nationwide immunization program; appointing an international commission to investigate charges of slavery; and cessation of the government's policy of aerial bombardment of civilians. The first three are under way, and in the Swiss Alps the US and Switzerland are facilitating permanent cease-fire talks in the Nuba Mountains.

But the bombardments continue, to Danforth's disappointment. The Khartoum government justifies the practice, saying the rebels, who are fighting for independence from the Islamist north, hide in hospitals, schools, and relief sites before launching attacks.

"There is no meaning for prospects of peace and for US involvement in peace if there is no understanding on something as absolutely basic and consistent with the Geneva Conventions as the immunity of civilians from military attacks," Danforth warned. "I'm from Missouri, where our motto is 'show me,' and the time has come for the sort of steps that people can see. Let's see some concrete results."

The Khartoum government objects to what it considers a one-sided requirement of calling for an end to aerial bombardment (it is the only party in this conflict with an air force).

President Omar Bashir told Danforth this week he is willing to call for a cessation of bombing only if the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) also pledge to suspend their own military activity. John Garang, leader of the rebel SPLA, rejects this linkage, and insists that he will agree to stop fighting only in the event of a comprehensive political agreement.

Nonetheless, Danforth signaled some optimism this week. Originally he had said he would end his mediation efforts if the sides had made no progress by the time he arrived this week. Now, he is saying he will postpone any recommendations to President George W. Bush until the spring, giving both sides more time to prove their commitment to the process.

"I think there is a chance here, and I want to follow through," he says. "We are engaged, and with the Europeans, I believe there is energy on the scene. There is momentum."

Overall, Khartoum welcomed Danforth's visit and his initiatives, saying that while the Clinton administration's policies had been "a fiasco," the efforts now being made are more constructive.

"The new administration is less ideological, more pragmatic," says Bashir's peace adviser Ghazi Salah al-Din al-Atabani, "and we welcome that." However, he objected to what he sees as a continued US bias toward the South.

Atabani pointed to the $10 million in aid Washington has promised to the coalition of rebels in the south as the prime stain on the US claim of neutrality. The aid is for nonlethal items, but has caused concern within Bashir's government.

Furthermore, Atabani and others in the government call the confidence-building measures "peripheral" and "symbolic," saying the US should instead move beyond them and deal with a comprehensive peace agreement.

At present there are two separate but parallel Sudan peace initiatives being considered - one spearheaded by the Kenyan government under the auspices of the regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and an Egyptian-Libyan initiative.

US officials said this week that the two initiatives should be merged under the stewardship of Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi. "We have a ways to go," says Danforth. "But only if and when I feel there is no prospect for success, will I stop."

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