Sudan, rebels to hold first peace talks in almost a year

Report
from Agence France-Presse
Published on 12 Feb 2014

02/12/2014 19:21 GMT

by Ian Timberlake

KHARTOUM, February 12, 2014 (AFP) - The Sudanese goverment and South Kordofan rebels are to meet Thursday for their first peace talks in almost a year, after a landmine reportedly killed five people in a war that has affected more than one million.

The Ethiopia negotiations come two weeks after Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir appealed for a political and economic "renaissance," with peace as the top priority, in his war-ravaged and poverty-stricken nation.

Diplomats say the Addis Ababa talks signal recognition within Bashir's 25-year-old regime that its current course is unsustainable.

The talks could be the start of a much broader national dialogue, drawing in opposition parties and other groups, to address discontent in outlying regions and ease pressure on a sanctions-hit, indebted economy starved of hard currency since South Sudan separated in 2011.

"I have a sense that we are on the verge of something," an African diplomat said.

"But how deep it will go and how serious it will be is another question."

The African Union said it invited the government and Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) for the negotiations.

"Both parties have received the invitation and have accepted to attend," an AU statement said, urging a speedy settlement of the conflicts in the Kordofan region and Blue Nile state, where SPLM-N rebels have been fighting since 2011 drawing support from among their non-Arab populations.

Short-lived negotiations between the two sides last April collapsed.

On the eve of the talks, state radio reported that a landmine blast in South Kordofan killed five people and wounded 13.

The report could not be verified but an estimated 1.2 million people have been displaced or otherwise affected by the Kordofan and Blue Nile conflicts, according to the United Nations.

Critics of the wars and other government policy became increasingly vocal after September demonstrations against fuel price rises.

More than 200 people were killed, according to Amnesty International, and analysts said the protests pointed to an urgent need for reform.

  • 'A significant development' -

"There are definitely people within the regime who want reforms," a Western diplomat said.

"They're not doing it for altruistic motives but recognising they don't want to go the way of Syria or other regimes around that have had Arab Springs."

Jonah Leff, of the Small Arms Survey, an independent Swiss-based research project, said the Addis talks are "a significant development" that reflects a political shift by the ruling National Congress Party.

The fighting in Kordofan and Blue Nile "must be sucking a lot of resources" from an economy desperate for hard currency, the Western diplomat said.

It is also a political obstacle to greater progress on debt relief, he said, asking for anonymity.

Sudan has more than $40 billion in debt, and is under a US trade embargo.

A civil war that began in South Sudan two months ago has added to Khartoum's economic misery.

Revenue from trans-shipping southern oil through Sudanese export pipelines is down about 20 percent, the diplomat said, after some southern oil fields were temporarily shut because of the fighting.

The wars in Kordofan and Blue Nile, and an older insurgency in the Darfur region, are fuelled by complaints of economic and political neglect by the Arab-dominated regime.

Analysts -- and the rebels themselves -- say the conflicts need to be addressed in a comprehensive national framework, not as separate problems as has been the government's practice.

Thursday's negotiations "will be launched in a very different atmosphere," as the government now accepts the need for a comprehensive solution, veteran columnist Mahjoub Mohamed Salih wrote in The Citizen.

In his "renaissance" speech, Bashir repeated an invitation for a broad political dialogue, including with the rebels.

But diplomats say there was also something new: a recognition of the country's ethnic diversity.

"I think what we're waiting for now is the roadmap, and how it's going to be implemented," the Western diplomat said. "But at the moment it's still just words."

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