Israeli weapons 'bound for rebels' in southern Sudan: Arms may be destined for SPLA fight against Khartoum

ISRAELI weapons on a plane stranded in Cyprus could be destined for rebels in southern Sudan, diplomats and observers speculated yesterday.

The Nigerian-owned Boeing cargo plane was forced to land at Larnaca on Tuesday during a flight from from Tel Aviv to Entebbe in Uganda. According to the Cypriot civil aviation authorities, it was carrying weapons to Uganda. A senior Ugandan official said yesterday it was the first his government knew of the consignment, and there is speculation that the weapons may be destined for the Sudan People's Liberation Army, struggling for survival in southern Sudan.

Both wings of the SPLA are being rapidly rearmed but the source of its new weapons has remained secret. The SPLA, deeply riven by internal divisions, has almost no resources of its own and faces defeat. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel, American allies opposed to the Islamic fundamentalist government in Khartoum, have an interest in keeping the war going to drain Khartoum's resources.

It is unlikely that the United States would supply the SPLA directly but sources in Washington said that knowing American hatred of Khartoum's fundamentalism, it is probable that Washington gave the green light to an ally in the region to supply the SPLA. Washington has been maintaining a barrage of criticism against Khartoum, particularly for its new offensive in the south.

The Khartoum government believes that American weapons left in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf war were channelled to the SPLA by Saudi businessmen and politicians with Washington's approval.

Six weeks ago when the offensive against the SPLA began, morale among the SPLA fighters was low and ammunition in short supply. The Khartoum troops pushing southwards towards the Uganda and Kenya borders with Sudan seemed unstoppable. However in recent days the SPLA has halted the attack and is reported to have reversed it in some areas, attacking Torit and holding the line at Kit River. At least one convoy has been seen travelling into SPLA territory from northern Kenya and both wings of the SPLA have been recruiting young men and boys into their armies.

The SPLA United, the wing of the SPLA led by Riak Machar which split from the chairman, John Garang, two years ago, claims it has renewed the fight against the Khartoum government. In January Mr Machar admitted that his movement suffered from a serious weapons and ammunition shortage.

The plane at Larnaca seems to have been part of a campaign to end that shortage. It has been unable to continue its flight and the weapons are expected to be transferred to another plane. There is nowhere in southern Sudan, held by the SPLA, where a Boeing could land and observers speculate that the arms would have been transferred from Uganda to southern Sudan by road.

The Sudanese government seems to regard Uganda as a supplier of the SPLA. Reliable sources in the area say Khartoum has been supplying dissidents elements in Uganda who have mounted random attacks near Sudanese refugee camps in northern Uganda.