Sudan offers bombing halt, U.S. skeptical

By ELI J. LAKE, UPI State Department Correspondent   |   Jan. 14, 2002 at 4:18 PM

KHARTOUM, Sudan, Jan. 14 (UPI) -- Sudanese President Omar Hassan Bashir offered Monday to temporarily stop bombing rebel positions for four weeks in a meeting with former Sen. John Danforth, President Bush's special envoy to the conflict.

"We offered to declare a voluntary, unilateral cessation of aerial bombing for four weeks as a test," Bashir's top adviser on the conflict, Ghazi Salah el-Din Atabani told reporters after leaving the meeting between Bashir's advisers and the Danforth delegation.

Atabani said he hoped the move would "prepare the atmosphere for a comprehensive cease-fire."

U.S. officials in Danforth's delegation were skeptical, however.

Retired Ambassador Robert Oakley, former U.S. envoy to Somalia under the first President Bush, said, "We've got a lot more talking to do before we finish this issue."

Another U.S. official confirmed that Bashir had, in fact, made the offer, but said it was conditional on southern rebels also putting down their weapons. Such a move would be highly unlikely, since the Sudan People's Liberation Army has never agreed to a cease-fire.

Ending the bombings is a top priority for Danforth in his current visit to Sudan. In November, he proposed a four-point plan to energize the moribund international peace process.

The Sudanese agreed to allow humanitarian drops in the Nuba mountains, to allow an international commission to investigate charges of slavery and to allow people to be vaccinated throughout the country. Danforth received no assurances on the bombing campaign, however.

That issue has been particularly troubling for key members of Congress and American Christian organizations.

Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., chairman of the House funding panel that allocates foreign aid, began hearings on the 2002 budget last spring by showing a video of the effects of the north's bombing campaign on Christian areas in the south.

"The effect of the bombing is not so much the damage of the bombs themselves but the terror it causes in the area," Scott Hughett, Africa director for Samaritan's Purse, a Christian relief group operating in the south of the country, told United Press International on Saturday in Nairobi, Kenya. "Children miss school, sick people are afraid to go clinics."

Danforth has said he needs to see a tangible commitment from the north on the bombing campaign and the general issue of not targeting civilians in the civil war if he is to recommend to the president that the United States stay and continue its diplomatic work.

One such action would be if Sudan allowed monitors to the conflict. Danforth said he hoped to reach such an agreement with Bashir.

The Sudanese so far have been opposed to monitoring.

"Monitoring guerilla forces is incredibly difficult to do and embarrassing," Atabani said. "What other country does this?"

But there may be some reason for optimism. On Monday, a delegation of Sudanese and rebel commanders from the Nuba Mountains arrived in a resort outside of Bern, Switzerland, to begin negotiating a longer cease-fire for the region.

Danforth will travel to the Nuba Mountains on Tuesday where he will see for himself the effects of the humanitarian drops -- and of the bombing campaign. He is then expected to meet with John Garang, the rebel leader in the south.

Last October, the World Food Program began food drops in the area. The drops have been marred by some bombing from the north, despite agreements with Bashir.

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