Monitoring team resuming work

A team mandated to monitor the cessation of hostilities accord between the Sudanese government and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) is resuming work, having been "grounded" since August.

Two Eritrean members of the Verification and Monitoring Team (VMT) were denied visas by the government of Sudan, which cited "security problems" along the Eritrean-Sudanese border, after which the Council of Ministers of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development - which is facilitating the peace process - had refused to authorise any missions, VMT staff told IRIN.

The VMT, which was mandated in February, has been dogged by problems ever since its inception due to a lack of funding and manpower, burdensome bureaucratic and diplomatic processes, and four changes of leadership.

Its chief of staff, Stuart McGhie, told IRIN the team had "to all intents and purposes" only started work last month. "This mission is characterised by diplomacy rather than any mission operation, so just like the peace process, everything takes a long time to happen," he said.

Dr Domenico Polloni, the deputy head of mission at the Italian embassy in Nairobi, and an observer at the peace talks, said the apparent "disappointing" performance of the VMT had resulted from the fact that both sides needed to "warm up" to the team, as well as to the cessation of hostilities agreement.

He added that delays had occurred as a result of disagreements between the government and the SPLM/A on the tasking of the VMT, then on its composition, and finally they had had to "figure out" what the team would actually do.

Polloni added that Italy had not withheld funding because of the difficulties, but observers say other donors were reluctant to invest until the many diplomatic problems had been ironed out.

VMT staff told IRIN that the team's mandate was now "developing all the time" expanding away from pure investigative work into mapping, liaison work with commanders, monitoring troop movements and locations, building confidence among government troops as well as the SPLA and militia groups, and informing them of their responsibilities under the cessation of hostilities agreement.

The team - which currently consists of 15 members - was now focusing on the creation of a field base by next month around Ler in western Upper Nile, McGhie told IRIN, after which a liaison office would be established in Malakal. At that stage, patrols would start operating from the field bases and the VMT would build up its manpower from two monitoring teams (with four people in each) to four.

A number of VMT investigations into ceasefire violations are also pending, some of which have been left unfinished for several months. But a Channel of Communications Committee, to which all violations have to be communicated, has not met since July.

Polloni told IRIN that "hardly any" new violations had been reported recently, showing that the situation on the ground had improved considerably. Observers note, however, that the composition of the communications committee has been causing problems, as members are also involved in Sudanese peace talks -including the chief mediator, Gen Lazarus Sumbeiywo - leaving them little time to perform both tasks.