- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 17, 2002

KHARTOUM, Sudan As the United States intensifies its scrutiny of two African nations it suspects of harboring terrorists, leaders from Sudan and Somalia and five of their neighbors gathered last week to discuss their region's growing reputation as a haven for militants, among other issues.

The ninth meeting of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development was supposed to agree on a definition of terrorism, as well as address issues such as Sudan's grinding civil war. But when the two-day meeting ended Friday, the leaders of Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Uganda and Sudan had made little progress beyond condemning terrorism.

In a region where most countries call their internal opposition terrorists and support militant groups in neighboring countries, the summit shows how hard it will be for leaders here to fall in line with the U.S.-led war against terrorism.

Nonetheless, officials of the United States and the United Nations say that by hosting a serious debate on this issue, Sudan signaled its desire to end its isolation and to work with the international alliance to weed out terror. One high-ranking official who participated in the closed-door session said the speakers, including Sudanese President Omar Hassan Bashir, showed a sincere, and new, interest in addressing together the problem of regional terrorism.

Cooperation between Washington and Khartoum has been increasing for months. CIA and FBI operatives have settled comfortably into Khartoum and are reportedly working with Sudanese counterparts, and about 200 intelligence files detailing the activities of Osama bin Laden and his followers during their Khartoum years have been delivered to the State Department. In addition, about 30 people suspected of being bin Laden associates were reportedly arrested and expelled.

Bin Laden arrived in 1991 and stayed five years, adopting the local dress; setting up an office downtown; opening construction, farm, and trading companies; and investing close to $20 million in this poor country. It is during these years that he reportedly began pulling together the network that would grow into al Qaeda.

Once one of Washington's principal African allies, Sudan has been out of favor since the beginning of its civil war in 1983. By 1993, the State Department had listed Sudan as a haven for terrorists. Sudan's U.N. delegation was implicated in the trial of the first World Trade Center bombers, and a Sudanese cell was accused of the attempted murder of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The United Nations and the United States imposed sanctions, and the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum was closed in 1996. Relations between Khartoum and Washington reached a low in 1998 when, following al Qaeda's bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the United States fired missiles at the El Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, claiming based on apparently faulty intelligence that chemical weapons were being produced there.

But the Bush administration has shown renewed interest in Sudan.

Last year, it named a special peace envoy to the region and reinstated a diplomatic presence in Khartoum. In late September, Washington allowed the United Nations to lift its sanctions, which were subsequently lifted. U.S. sanctions remain.

"There is a new perspective in Washington, a new policy of engagement," said Information Minister Mahdi Ibrahim Mohammed.

John Prendergast, an expert on Sudan, says Khartoum is motivated to ally itself with Washington. "The government no longer needs the financing that it once needed from the Islamist organizations," he said, "because of the oil revenues."

With oil reserves valued at more than $900 million last year, and with several multinational oil firms knocking on Sudan's door, some in the State Department have suggested a more liberal trade policy with Khartoum may be in the offing if permanent peace could be established and terrorism contained.

Khartoum, says one American official, knows that it can get more money from working with the United States than from working with terrorists who stand against it. "We don't necessarily look into what Khartoum's reasons for fighting terror are," he said. "We are interested in results."

Critics say Khartoum still supports terrorists and say the United States is being tricked. "Nothing has changed here for the better," said human rights lawyer Ghazi Sulieman, pointing to restrictions on basic civil liberties, the ongoing war in the south and suspected connections of high-ranking government ministers to Islamic terror groups.

"The government simply wants to survive," said Alfred Taban, publisher of the opposition paper Khartoum Monitor. "They don't want the southern rebels to be suddenly turned into America's next Northern Alliance, and as such are trying to improve their image," he said.

"The government's power base is the fundamentalist Islamicists, and there is no doubt in my mind that terrorists have simply gone under cover and are receiving cover from the government. . When all this dies down, they will come out of the woodwork," Mr. Taban declared.

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