- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 23, 2003

LONDON, Feb. 23 (UPI) — With the United States focusing on preparations for war against Iraq, European and Canadian peace envoys were expected in Khartoum to boost Sudanese peace talks scheduled to resume in Kenya on March 19.

British envoy Alan Gutly and Canada's Mabena Jaafar, accompanied by a large delegation from the Canadian foreign ministry, will visit the Sudanese capital within the coming week to back up their government's support for talks between the government of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and the commander of the insurgent Sudan People's Liberation Army, John Garang.

The representative of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, Gen. Lazaros Simbobo, is also expected in the Sudanese capital this week.

IGAD, which is sponsoring the talks, is composed of Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda

No tangible progress was achieved in the three rounds of talks that followed the two sides agreeing on a framework for peace last July. Under the agreement, the predominantly Christian and animist south of Sudan would hold a referendum on self-determination after a six-year transitional period.

The two parties agreed on halting military operations in southern Sudan after the SPLA captured the government-controlled city of Tourit last September. Khartoum then suspended talks in protest.

The cease-fire agreement lacked a clear mechanism for implementation and was violated several times late last year by pro-government militias in the area of the Upper Nile.

As the time for the fourth round of peace talks approached, Washington seems less interested in Sudan than in the past, apparently absorbed in Iraq crisis.

Observers believe that Khartoum will try to take advantage of Washington's distraction to impose its own terms for ending the protracted civil war. It first began in 1955, even before the country became independent, with southern resistance to the northern drive to impose Arab culture and Islam on the south.

For their part, the SPLA was hoping to build on the growing feeling that the al-Bashir regime, which figures on the U.S. list of terrorism-sponsoring governments, has not changed and that its initial backing of Washington's war on terrorism has run its course.

In the meantime, the U.S. administration is expected to report to Congress on developments in the talks and to name the party it sees as responsible for blocking progress in the negotiations.

The report could be a turning point in Washington's relations with Sudan, depending on which party is seen as obstructing the peace effort.

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