Talks crisis deepens

The rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) has denied that its recapture of a strategic town in the south was the cause of a breakdown in peace negotiations. It said "internal difficulties" facing the Khartoum government were to blame.

"Before the GOS [Government of Sudan] delegation left Khartoum for the second phase of the talks in [the Kenyan town of] Machakos they were strictly ordered by columns of Islamic fundamentalist members of the regime to torpedo the talks," SPLM/A spokesman Samson Kwaje said in a statement on Tuesday.

Sudanese government negotiators pulled out of talks on Monday after SPLM/A forces captured the strategic town of Torit, Eastern Equatoria, over the weekend.

A statement issued by the Sudanese embassy in Nairobi on Tuesday said the rebel attack on Torit had "spoiled the atmosphere" of the talks. "That indicated the SPLM/A is still committed to the military option and not willing to negotiate in good faith or consider peace a viable option," it said.

However, SPLM/A spokesman Samson Kwaje told journalists in Nairobi on Tuesday an upsurge in fighting around Torit had been initiated by government forces. "Before the start of last week the government of Sudan ordered an offensive on all fronts from Torit," he said.

Kwaje also claimed that government representatives had approached the second round of talks, which began in mid-August, with a negative attitude. "They did not want to act positively. They were looking for reasons to walk out, and finally Torit gave them one," Kwaje said.

Sudanese army spokesman Gen Bashir Sulayman was quoted as saying by the official Sudanese News Agency on Monday that government forces would be mobilised in an attempt to recapture the town. The armed forces would no longer stick to "self-restraint" following the rebel attack, he added.

In addition to the rebel offensive on Torit, the government gave three main reasons for suspending negotiations.

First, the SPLM/A had put forward a proposal for the creation of a federal union composed of one northern and one southern state, whereas the previous Machakos Protocol agreed in July had undertaken to maintain the unity of Sudan for at least a six-year interim period.

Second, continuing disputes over the transition zones between north and south - namely Southern Blue Nile, the Nuba Mountains region of south-central Kordofan, and Abyei in northern Bahr al-Ghazal - had not been settled to the government's satisfaction.

Third, the rebel negotiators had re-opened the issue of the relationship between state and religion by introducing the concept of a Shari'ah-free capital for Sudan. The SPLM/A say that, while the framework Machakos Protocol exempts the southern states from Islamic law, they are still opposed to an interim government being based in Khartoum as long as Shari'ah operates there.

In an apparent demonstration of the seriousness of the impasse, government negotiators had been instructed by Khartoum to return to the Sudanese capital, and had already left Machakos, Sudan radio reported on Tuesday.

"The Government of the Sudan has called back its delegation to the IGAD peace talks in Machakos, Kenya, for consultation," the Sudanese embassy statement said. "The Government of Sudan appeals to the international community to exert all pressure on the SPLM/A so as to compel it to live up to its previous commitments."

Agreement on a framework peace deal in July had raised hopes that negotiators may have been able to bring an end to Sudan's 19-year civil war.

The sharing of power and wealth between north and south, security arrangements, the geographic definition of the south, and the modalities of a comprehensive ceasefire were all due to be discussed during the second round of talks, sponsored by the regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), under the chairmanship of Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi.