Sudanese split on peace talks failure: Southern rebels scorn Khartoum's optimism

THE COLLAPSE of the Sudan peace talks in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, has produced opposite reactions from the participants. The government remains optimistic, claiming that the talks have produced positive results and that the next round, scheduled for mid-June, will bring further agreement. The Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) the mainly southern rebel movement, is pessimistic.

Asked what the peace talks had achieved, Sudan's Foreign Minister, Bishop Gabriel Roric Jur, said on Thursday: 'There is a ceasefire which will continue for the duration of the talks . . . and there is the agreement to resume talks . . . The two sides now deal with each other as friends.'

But an SPLA spokesman, Nhial Deng Nhial, said: 'There are no prospects for a breakthrough. The chances are not promising.' And John Garang, the leader of the SPLA faction involved in the talks, said the north had offered nothing new.

The issue which divides the two sides - and has divided the two parts of Sudan for centuries - remains the same: the north is Islamic and Arab, and the south is Christian and black African. The northern government in Khartoum wants an Islamic state, but is prepared to offer the south some exemption from Islamic law. Mr Garang's SPLA stands for a secular state and devolved power. It will not accept an Islamic state, in which southerners are exempted from Sharia law but remain second-class citizens.

Whatever formulas the two sides come up with do not bridge this gap, but both sides need the talks just now. The government is bankrupt and divided between Islamic fundamentalism and military pragmatism. It is involved in a border dispute with Egypt. It is being chastised by Western governments and donors for its Islamic fundamentalism, and is pursuing political integration with Libya.

Khartoum has sought a way out of this corner by trying to appear reasonable and statesmanlike, employing a public relations firm in Washington, offering visas to Western journalists and appearing flexibile at the peace talks. But these moves are contradicted by its attempt to be the standard-bearer of Islamic militancy. On 18 April President Omar al-Bashir was quoted on state radio as saying that Sudan was 'not involved in acts of terrorism - except against the enemies of God'.

The SPLA is, meanwhile, at war with itself. It split two years ago and the original wing, led by Mr Garang, is trying to defeat the breakaways, led by Riak Machar. Mr Garang stood for a united secular Sudan, but Mr Machar is demanding a separate south. The split has led to a debilitating tribal war, and Mr Garang needs a ceasefire with Khartoum to destroy the rebels from his own ranks. But he knows the main tribes in the south, including his own Dinka, are separatist, and he is moving towards a separatist position.

Khartoum, meanwhile, wants to sit back and watch the south tear itself to pieces - and to show the world that the south cannot rule itself.