With Sudan close to peace, U.S. urges resolution

Powell: `Moment must not be lost' after 20 years

October 23, 2003|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - A two-decade civil war in Sudan that has killed and uprooted millions, seen slavery, starvation and rape employed as weapons and kept a vast oil-rich nation gripped by poverty, seems to be almost over.

For the Bush administration, which has played a quiet role in ending the conflict, the possible conclusion of hostilities offers a rare example of genuine peacemaking in a diplomatic record dominated by the global war on terrorism, discord with allies over Iraq and a stalemate in the Middle East.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell doesn't want to let the opportunity slip away.

"We must find a solution, this is a moment of opportunity that must not be lost," Powell said yesterday in Kenya, where he stopped overnight to give a push to negotiators for the government and rebels meeting there. "The people of Sudan have known hardship and devastation for too long."

But if an agreement is reached before the end of this year, as the two sides pledged to Powell yesterday, the White House then faces a politically delicate choice in deciding whether to reward Sudan by lifting economic sanctions and removing it from the list of nations that sponsor terrorism.

The Sudanese conflict has pitted forces of the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum and its militia allies against rebels in the ethnically African south, tearing the continent's biggest country apart. The north is largely Muslim; the south is mostly made up of Christians and animists, who believe plants, inanimate objects and natural phenomena have living souls.

The combination of war and war-induced famine have killed an estimated 2 million people and displaced 4 million more, and generated a level of brutality notable even on a continent that has been no stranger to mass killings.

Government security forces repeatedly attacked civilian areas, killing men and abducting thousands of women and children while destroying whole villages, schools and hospitals, human rights reports say.

Atrocities abound

Some of those captured were sold into slavery. Women were raped, and children were drafted into the military or forced to work. The government practiced scorched-earth policies and killed most captured rebel soldiers instead of holding them prisoner.

Rebels, for their part, also killed large numbers of civilians, raped women, laid land mines on roads used both by soldiers and civilians and let prisoners die in custody, according to the reports.

"All sides involved in the fighting were responsible for violations" of human rights, the State Department asserted in 2002.

Sudan has known four decades of civil war, Africa's longest, as rebels in the south fought against what its political leaders claimed was a second-class status imposed by a northern Arab-Muslim elite.

But the heaviest fighting has occurred since 1983, when the government, then led by Jaffar Numairi, abrogated an 11-year-old agreement with southern rebels and sought to impose Shariah law, based on the Koran, on the non-Muslim population in the south.

A new government controlled by what became known as the National Islamic Front continued pursuing the war after it took control of the country in 1989.

The conflict has scarcely been interrupted by severe humanitarian crises, such as a famine that killed 200,000 people in 1988, and in recent years has led to further suffering, putting an estimated 3 million people at risk of starvation.

As fighters laid waste to agricultural lands, raids by both government troops and rebels blocked delivery of food aid. Wrecked roads prevented aid workers from reaching stricken populations.

"Manipulation of humanitarian assistance has been throughout the conflict an integral part of the strategies of both warring parties - but especially the government," the International Crisis Group, a large private conflict-resolution agency, reported last November.

Oil only fuels fire

The government's drive, starting in the 1990s, to exploit Sudan's large oil deposits only gave the two sides more to fight over in a nation with per-capita annual income of $300.

But those deposits also served to make the government less keen on fighting, since a combination of war and pressure from American sanctions and from human rights groups discouraged major Western oil companies from making large investments in the oil fields.

This opening has been pursued by African mediators, led by Kenya, with strong but quiet backing from the United States and a European "troika" - Britain, Norway and Italy - edging out regional power-brokers Egypt and Libya.

The United States played an important role.

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