Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Uthman Isma'il has said that "nobody should feel annoyed" over the long time being spend by the country's warring parties in peace talks in Kenya. He said despite the obstacles being encountered by the parties, the Sudanese government remained "optimistic" that peace will be achieved with the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army, SPLA. Isma'il however, admitted that he does not expect this to happen during the next round of negotiations. He also accused some American Christian organizations of supporting SPLA in an attempt "to damage Islam and the religious coexistence in the country".
The following is the text of interview in Cairo with Mustafa Umara by London-based newspaper Al-Zaman on 15 September: subheadings inserted editorially;
[Umara] There is some ambiguity surrounding the negotiations, given their long duration and the difference of views between the two parties on the implementation of the IGAD [Intergovernmental Authority on Development] document.
[Isma'il] Nobody should feel annoyed with the long duration of these negotiations and the impasse that has sometimes marred the talks between the two parties. The negotiations are still going on, as they are dealing with issues that are at the centre of the conflict. This is because our aim is to achieve a comprehensive peace.
There is awareness from both parties about the importance of making these negotiations a success, bearing in mind that the alternative, if these negotiations were to fail, would be war, from which we have suffered for a long time. This is the reason why we are anxious to maintain the secrecy of these negotiations. Therefore, we will not reveal anything to the press until we reach a final solution.
[Umara] But some people have criticized these negotiations because they involve two sides only. When will the opposition parties be involved in this process as well?
[Isma'il] President Al-Bashir has recently met a delegation representing all political parties. He explained to them the outcome of the negotiations. He also listened to their requests. This is because our aim is to achieve a comprehensive peace and a fair redistribution of resources and power. Besides, the ballot box will decide who will be in charge of the country's destiny.
[Umara] Do you view the next round as the final step toward a lasting peace agreement?
[Isma'il] I do not expect the next round of negotiations to be the last one that would lead to the signing of a peace agreement. This is due to some objective and political reasons. The objective ones are linked to the fact that we still need time and a tremendous effort to reach a general agreement with the [rebel] SPLA [Sudan People's Liberation Army].
As for the political reasons, they have to do with the fact that one of the parties involved in the negotiations, the SPLA, has been repeatedly showing intransigence and dragging its feet, with the aim of keeping the status quo until 21 October 2003, in order to see what kind of measures the US Congress would take against the Sudanese government. This is why we do not expect a speedy resolution of the conflict, as we would have wanted.
Despite all that, we are optimistic, because the will of the Sudanese in the north as well as in the south is directed toward peace. It is difficult for any of the parties to deviate from the road to peace without suffering some political setback. Both parties are currently anxious to take advantage of the opportunity offered by the international environment.
Any party that misses such an opportunity would be the biggest loser. We are optimistic that we will sign a peace agreement, but not during the next round of negotiations.
[Umara] Was the meeting between [First Vice-President] Ali Uthman [Taha] and [SPLA leader,] John Garang, an alternative to a possible Garang-Al-Bashir summit? How true is the information that Ali Uthman has declined to be prime minister if a peace agreement is reached?
[Isma'il] The meeting between Uthman and Garang was not an alternative to a summit that would have taken place between Garang and Al-Bashir. It was in fact a prelude to such a summit. Because some previous attempts failed, it was necessary to prepare this summit.
As for the [alleged] refusal by Ali Uthman to become prime minister, it is to be said that he, himself, announced that he would be ready to take up such a position if it was in the interest of Sudan.
[Umara] Is it true that the cause for the latest crisis was the fact that the SPLA refused to discuss the issue of partnership?
[Isma'il] In fact, it is an old issue that was raised when the Machakos protocol was signed. The SPLA insisted on it as a matter of confidence-building gesture. The protocol stipulates the formation of a cabinet with the participation of the government and the SPLA. We then said that we needed to build confidence between the two major parties. In fact, we are heading for the formation of the government in order to avoid being quarrelsome partners.
[Umara] The government has indicated that it was subjected to some pressure from some international parties. Does it mean that the aim of this pressure is to compel the government to make some concessions?
[Isma'il] Instead of using the word "pressure," let us use "desire." There is a strong desire, from the Sudanese people, the Arabs, the Africans and the international community, to stop the war and restore peace. There is also a desire to see Sudan taking advantage of its wealth and resources.
This desire was reflected by the continuous presence of these forces on the negotiation arena and in the follow-up of the negotiation process. You also find these forces moving from Khartoum to Nairobi, Cairo and Washington.
They are all channelled toward the success and the speeding up of the process leading to a peace agreement.
Relations with neighbours
[Umara] Did the recent events that occurred in the west of Sudan have any link with the peace process and the SPLA?
[Isma'il] Following events in the west and the east, the SPLA wrongly believes that the government is in its worst state. This false message is being conveyed by the SPLA to various parties concerned with the peace process. It is true that the government admits the existence of problems. It is endeavouring to solve them, whether in the west, the east or the south.
But in the past, the government went through more difficult circumstances than the ones currently experienced. In the early nineties, the government was indeed facing the escalation of the war in the south and another in the east.
This is in addition to the intervention of neighbouring countries such as Ethiopia, Eritrea, the DRCongo and Uganda. This foreign intervention took place in 1997 and looked like a coalition [against Sudan]. Besides, the government was subjected to a tough siege by the US. The situation is not the same today, as the government has improved its relations with the neighbouring countries, apart from Eritrea. It has also opened up its relations with European countries. Over all, the government has established better relations with foreign countries.
It is certain that we are now in a better position than before. However, we would like to use such a momentum to achieve peace and not to continue the war.
Plane incident in west
[Umara] How about the plane shot down by the Sudanese army in the west of the country? What was the motivation behind such an incident?
[Isma'il] Frankly speaking, the Sudanese government will not hesitate to deter anyone who attempts to tamper with the country's security and capabilities. The plane, which was dealt with by the government forces in the province of north Darfur, was a foreign aircraft that had infiltrated a region marked by security tensions. The government forces resorted to a deterrent approach to deal with this plane.
It is in fact the duty of the Sudanese armed forces to defend the security of the country and to guarantee the safety of the Sudanese territories. We would like to pay tribute to the courage shown by the armed forces in dealing with this aircraft.
This plane belongs to the company [name of firm withheld]," which is owned by an individual based in Great Britain. The SPLA hired this aircraft to carry out missions involving the transportation of weapons and ammunitions. In addition, the plane was engaged in transporting individuals and evacuating the wounded among the rebels. It was also flying regularly between the Kenyan base of Lokichoggio [northwestern Kenya] and many regions in the north of Bahr al-Ghazal, the equatorial province, and the south of the heights of Nile.
This aircraft has flown many times to certain parts of the war zone in Darfur. Its missions covered the region of Malwal Kon, which is under government control, and various regions in Darfur, in addition to the heights of Nile. During such missions, this aircraft transported quantities of ammunitions, military equipment and supplies.
In addition, it was used to transport gangs of armed looters, destined for some training. It was also used to bring back to Darfur members of the gangs at the end of their training sessions.
The aircraft also carried groups of Dinka tribe members to the region of Jabal Sarir (province of west Darfur) to take part in training some young elements of the gangs. Most of these young trainees are under the control of the rebels in Darfur. The aircraft took off from the Kenyan base of Lokichoggio before landing at Malwal Kon airport in the north of Bahr al-Ghazal. It was loaded with quantities of supplies and ammunitions destined for the rebels in Darfur. It was also supposed to evacuate the injured among the gangs of armed looters. This evacuation was part of ongoing missions to a SPLA hospital in the region of "New isde" [as published] in the east of the equatorial province.
The movements of the aircraft were constantly monitored and this is why it was dealt with the moment it landed and started to prepare to unload. A group of unlawful people who were waiting for the aircraft were killed.
This is the kind of treatment reserved for anyone who attempts to tamper with Sudan's capabilities, security and stability.
[Umara] What is the truth regarding the contacts between Khartoum and Washington, in light of the report published by Newsweek about [US] financial and technical support to the SPLA?
[Isma'il] These contacts have been conducted through our embassy in Washington. They involved US official circles and lobbies that have an impact on the public opinion. The aim was to explain the dimensions of what we consider as a clear targeting of Sudan and its march toward peace by the religious far right elements within the US Congress. This campaign is being clearly supported by Christian Solidarity. It also involves the training of SPLA members by a US security firm.
Our embassy in Washington has sent messages to all parties concerned with the Sudanese issue, including the official circles and lobbies that have influence over the public opinion. It also continued its intensive contacts regarding this matter in order to confirm that the information published by Newsweek supports the position of the government. The latter has been repeatedly drawing the attention to the fact that some US circles were orchestrating an anti-Sudan campaign.
The information currently published by Newsweek unveils the truth about the unfair campaign directed by the religious far right and the anti-Sudan organizations. The Newsweek report confirms indeed that [government] efforts are channelled toward peace and stability. It also shows that the accusations of the far right and the anti-Sudan organizations are false and slanderous. Their aim is to shake Sudan's security and to take advantage of the situation in the south of the country in an attempt to damage Islam and the religious coexistence in the country.
As for the [Newsweek] report itself, it revealed that the SPLA had received 3 million dollars in cash from Christian Solidarity, led by [name withheld].
The report also mentioned a US security firm based in Colorado [being involved in training SPLA rebels].
Source: Al-Zaman, London, in Arabic 15 Sep 03
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