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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
13 June 2006

SUDAN: Talks on the east gear up as SPLM/A pulls out of Hamishkorieb

NAIROBI, 13 Jun 2006 (IRIN) - Eritrea's president met his Sudanese counterpart in Khartoum on Monday during rare direct talks ahead of landmark peace negotiations aimed at ending a simmering civil conflict in east Sudan.

"President Umar al-Bashir welcomed the good offices offer by the Eritrean president and expressed his optimism for the success of this Eritrean mediation," presidential adviser Mustafa Osman Ismail told reporters during the six-hour talks between President Isayas Afewerki and the Sudanese president. "The Eritrean mediator will present his vision on how the problem will be solved when the two sides get together for the procedural session in Eritrea on Friday."

The eastern rebels accuse the Sudanese government of marginalising the remote regions of the country and demand greater autonomy. They see the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed between the government and the southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) on 9 January 2005 as a model for their own region.

The Eastern Front - an alliance between two rebel movements, the Beja Congress and a smaller insurgency, the Rashaida Free Lions - has been active in the poor region near the Eritrean border, but fighting is sporadic and on a small scale. Originally a nomadic people, many Beja live in extensive shantytowns on the outskirts of Port Sudan. They moved to the port to work as labourers after famine killed their cattle and mechanised farming took over their lands in the 1980s.

Eastern Sudan is a strategic region that includes Port Sudan - the country's economic lifeline, through which most of its foreign trade passes - the oil pipeline, many irrigated and semi-mechanised agricultural schemes, and a long border with Eritrea, with whom Sudan has had rocky relations for the past 12 years. Due in part to the region's economic and strategic significance, as well as the military activities since the mid-1990s, the government has a heavy security presence involving - according to the International Crisis Group - three times as many forces as in the conflict-ravaged western region of Darfur.

Several Libyan-sponsored initiatives have failed to bring an end to the region's unrest. Sudan believes Eritrea could play a major role in resolving the dispute because of ethnic ties and the influence Afwerki has with leaders in that area.

Mahmud Ghandur, an official of the Beja Congress, said on Monday the Eastern Front was "optimistic on the success of the negotiations, if the government shows sincerity in reaching a settlement to the conflict."

SPLM/A pulls out of Hamishkorieb

On Sunday, the SPLM/A officially pulled out its forces of Hamishkorieb and handed over the area to the civilian administration of Kassala State. Hamishkorieb, about 500km northeast of Khartoum, was the largest town controlled by the SPLM/A in eastern Sudan during the 21-year north-south civil war.

The Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General in Sudan, Jan Pronk, welcomed the redeployment and expressed hope that the forthcoming peace talks on eastern Sudan would help to achieve lasting peace in the region. "It is another milestone in making the CPA a reality, and we look forward to more of these landmark steps towards the full implementation of that historic peace accord that will ensure sustainable peace, stability and development for Sudan," Pronk said.

The pullout is part of the overall plan for the armed forces of the SPLM/A to leave eastern Sudan. The CPA had set a deadline for the SPLM/A to redeploy to the south by 9 January 2006, but that deadline could not be met mainly due to logistical delays. The SPLM/A pulled out a battalion of 700 troops in 14 trucks and headed to Kassala as a first step before moving on to a southern location. According to SPLM/A officials, some troops that have remained in Kotneb and Rassai will also be withdrawn to Kassala before the implementation of the redeployment to the south commences.

Analysts concerned

Various observers in the region have expressed concern that in the absence of a peace agreement with the remaining armed groups the complete SPLM/A pullout might disrupt the region’s relative stability.

In its latest report on eastern Sudan, the ICG warned that if the SPLM/A proceeded with its scheduled troop withdrawal, the low-intensity conflict between the Sudanese government and the rebel Eastern Front risked becoming a major new war with disastrous humanitarian consequences. "There has been an increased presence of SAF [Sudanese Armed Forces] and PDF [Popular Defence Forces] forces in the region, and they are occupying strategic positions," said an independent analyst in the region.

To prevent war in the east, the international community needed to commit to the peace process and work closely with key regional actors, particularly Eritrea, the ICG report added. The international advocacy organisation also stressed that significant donor attention and resources were needed to reverse a situation in which crude mortality rates and malnutrition levels were even higher than in Sudan’s troubled Darfur region.

"In Hamishkorieb town, there has been no provision of basic services after the activities of the two remaining international aid agencies in the area were suspended in January," the analyst said. "Only the Sudanese Red Crescent is providing some basic health services - and the Sudanese government, as a goodwill gesture, arrived in Hamishkorieb with 27 trucks of food on Sunday."

The instability was compounded by the fact that the mandate of the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) in eastern Sudan formally ends with the complete withdrawal of the SPLM/A forces, the analyst added, and it was unclear whether the UNMIS presence in the east would be extended.

Another concern was that the representatives of the Beja Congress, who were negotiating with the Sudanese government in the Eritrean capital Asmara, were not necessarily representative of the entire rebel movement, the analyst warned. Other rebel groups, such as the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), which is also active in Darfur, remained outside the negotiations altogether. "There are big divisions between the Beja Congress in Port Sudan and the Beja Congress in Asmara and communications within the movement are very poor," she said. "The Sudanese government is very concerned about what is going to happen next, especially with regard to the other armed groups in the area."

"We do not accept the decision to exclude us from the talks between the Eastern Front and Khartoum," said JEM leader Khalil Ibrahim in Asmara on Tuesday. "Khartoum will not get peace if we don't participate in the talks," he added, warning that JEM’s presence in the east could not be ignored.

On 10 April, an attack on Wagar town near Kassala by suspected JEM forces killed six SAF soldiers, and there was an attempted ambush on a convoy carrying the governor of Kassala State at the beginning of May.

"These are peace talks without a ceasefire," the analyst warned.


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