Russia republic, Sudan seek deals on arms, oil

New wealth could tip long African civil war

War On Terrorism

The World

October 23, 2001|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Sudan, long considered a home to international terrorists but now nearly rehabilitated in the eyes of the Bush administration, is looking for deals with oil companies and suppliers of military hardware, and Russia is trying to get to the head of the line.

The African country that once sheltered Osama bin Laden has changed -- but maybe not all that much -- since his expulsion in 1996, and now it wants to talk business with the ferociously anti-terrorist Russians, who appear to be delighted by the opportunity.

The Russians would like to step in before the Americans get around to dropping their sanctions against Sudan.

The State Department still lists Sudan among the countries that sponsor terrorism. But since Sept. 11, the Bush administration has been praising the government's cooperation in the fight against bin Laden and his al-Qaida organization. Human rights organizations still list Sudan among the few countries that maintain slavery -- a byproduct of a civil war that has raged for 18 years between the Arab north and the black African south.

But that's not the sort of issue that's on the table right now, at least in Russia.

A delegation led by the Sudanese external trade minister, Abdel Hamid Mussa Kasha, was in the autonomous Volga River republic of Tatarstan over the weekend, talking oil with the Tatneft company and checking out Mi-17 helicopters, optical sighting devices, trucks and passenger planes. No deals were signed.

"It was just a kind of a protocol meeting," said Timur Shagivaleyev, an adviser to Tatarstan's prime minister for foreign economic relations.

The contracts would likely be signed at a trade fair in Khartoum in February. The republic's political leaders, who essentially control the businesses that would be involved, are hopeful.

"I don't think the authorities in Tatarstan understand Sudan," said Vladilen Gusarov, an expert at the Institute of Africa in Moscow. "The government still gives cover and shelter to Islamic fundamentalists from many countries. The civil war is continuing. The country is very backward and unreliable."

The transaction would likely draw opposition from the United States.

"We would look on it with great apprehension, because what we're trying to do is lower the risk of increased armed conflict," said a senior U.S. official, who declined to be identified. President Bush has tapped former Sen. John C. Danforth as a special envoy to try to bring an end to the Sudanese civil war, which pits the Khartoum-based government against mostly Christian forces in the south, with side battles among various factions. U.S. officials believe the war can't be won by either side.

A generation ago, Sudan was the Soviet Union's biggest client state in Africa. But by the mid-1980s, the Russians had packed up and gone. Sudan fell under the sway of Islamic hard-liners who ended up despising both Moscow and Washington.

War broke out with the secession-minded south, and for the first half of the 1990s, bin Laden lived in Sudan establishing his network. His construction company built a 750-mile highway between Khartoum and Port Sudan -- a project for which the government reportedly never paid him.

Three years ago, after bin Laden was asked to leave Sudan, the United States fired a cruise missile into what it thought was a chemical weapons factory that he owned there, in retaliation for the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

It was apparently a pharmaceuticals plant and not owned by bin Laden. Since then, Washington has toned down its criticism of Sudan. A year ago, President Omar al-Bashir threw out his radical prime minister, and now it appears that all sides want to find a way to get along, especially with attention now focused on Afghanistan.

After the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, Sudan arrested 30 potential suspects, offered the United States the use of its air bases and provided intelligence information.

At the end of September, the United Nations lifted sanctions against Sudan. Two weeks later, the Russian ambassador to Khartoum, Valery Kuzmin, said Russia had been instrumental in the move -- the United States abstained on the vote -- and congratulated the Sudanese government for "reinforcing freedoms." He noted that Sudan and Russia were cementing economic ties.

Sudan has extensive oil fields, which happen to lie on the front lines between the northern and southern forces. One joint venture has already gone to work there, a consortium of three companies: Talisman of Canada, Petronas of Malaysia and the China National Petroleum Corp.

Since pumping began in August, the consortium has been producing about 220,000 barrels a day -- not much by international standards, but enough to double Sudan's military spending. That, plus the lure of a lot more oil, has caught the attention of the authorities in Tatarstan.

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