Rebel advances rattle Sudanese government Khartoum seems willing to break isolation, sends envoy to Egypt


WASHINGTON -- Rebel advances in Sudan over recent days have shaken the Islamic-led government, increasing the possibility of reform if not defeat of the rogue regime, according to officials and regional analysts.

In one dramatic reaction to the increasing pressure it is facing, the beleaguered Khartoum leadership sent an emissary last week to meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, target of a 1995 assassination attempt by terrorists who allegedly fled to Sudan.

Sudan is on the U.S. State Department's list of pariah nations because of its support of international terrorism. It is also under U.N. sanctions for failure to arrest and hand over the suspects in the Mubarak assassination attempt.

A senior U.S. official, who asked not to be named, said Khartoum was expected to dispatch another envoy to Ethiopia, a neighboring country that Sudan accused at the U.N. Security Council last week of sending troops to help the rebel advance.

Ethiopia has denied involvement in the fighting.

The Sudanese civil war has been raging for 14 years as the government tries to impose Islamic rule and its opponents, mainly Christians or traditional animists, fight for a democratic, urban society.

The government has been accused of razing villages, mistreating the civilian population, depriving rebel-held areas of humanitarian aid, and using unpaid Arab militia forces to enslave women and children, mainly from the African Dinka tribe that lives in the south of the country.

The two surprise diplomatic moves were widely seen as an effort by Khartoum to reduce its regional isolation at a time it is reported to be facing serious new battlefield setbacks in the civil war.

Egypt's Mubarak has been ambivalent toward Sudan, angered by its alleged involvement in the attempt on his life but committed to keeping it unified to prevent a breakaway rebel nation from staking a new claim to the waters of the Nile.

The White and Blue Niles join to become the River Nile at the Sudanese capital.

Sudanese Vice President Gen. Mohammed Saleh met with Mubarak on Thursday. No communique was issued after the meeting, but a U.S. official suggested that Saleh wanted to reinforce Egypt's interest in Sudanese unity and to counter growing support in Cairo for tougher U.N. sanctions against Khartoum.

The Egyptians surprisingly stepped back to allow Eritrea, a nation openly hostile to Sudan, to push for initial U.N. sanctions -- in the wake of the Mubarak assassination attempt, but more recently they have shown interest in widening the sanctions to include a ban on international air service to and from Sudan.

It was less clear what the Sudanese would hope to gain by sending an envoy to Ethiopia, but such a move could reflect growing alarm over hostility outside the country and the rebel successes inside.

"There is heightened concern on the part of the Sudanese about what is going on around them and within their borders and across their borders," said a State Department official. "I don't know if I can characterize it as a crisis.

"But, if I were them, I would be worried."

Walter Kansteiner, national security council director for Africa during the Bush administration, said: "What I think it tells us is that in the eyes of Khartoum the equilibrium, or at least the status quo, has been broken and something new is happening."

Reports from the region in recent days have detailed rebel claims of advances toward Khartoum from the north and east of the country, targeting the hydroelectric power station at Damazin, which supplies 80 percent of the Sudanese capital's power.

"You get the dam and you do have a lot of control," said Constance Freeman, African expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a group of policy analysts in Washington.

Rebel commanders, whose operations have previously been limited mainly to the south of the country, have been quoted as saying that their goal is not to capture the capital but to provoke a popular uprising against the military-backed Islamic fundamentalist government that seized power in 1989.

"They don't wish to invade Khartoum and have fighting in the streets," said John Eibner, an official with the Zurich-based human rights organization Christian Solidarity International, who met rebel leaders in east-central Sudan this month.

"They want to surround Khartoum and be in control of the strategically important installations, not only militarily important but economically, and the dam is of vital importance."

Eibner accused the government of conducting "a scorched-earth policy" against civilians suspected of aiding the rebels in the contested region of the southern Blue Nile.

"We were able to see the charred remains of tukuls [conical, thatched homes] which stretched for miles," he said in a phone interview from Switzerland. "We could hear artillery fire, but we were not at the front."

Last year, Eibner accompanied two Sun reporters illegally into southern Sudan to buy and free two young slaves, to prove -- despite denials by the Khartoum government -- that slavery exists in Sudan.

Gaspar Biro, a special investigator for the U.N.'s Human Rights Commission, told a news conference Friday in Geneva that he believed Khartoum had been working for some time "to keep the population on the move" to deprive the rebels of a base.

Biro, a 39-year-old Hungarian law professor, said he was compelled to leave Sudan soon after his arrival last week when the country's prosecutor-general, Abdul-Rahman Ibrahim, told him his security could not be guaranteed.

Leaders of the rebel army and traditional political opposition leaders formed an alliance in 1995 to create a democratic, secular society in Sudan.

Under their plan, national unity would be maintained for four years, after which Sudan's traditionally deprived southerners could opt out of the federation if their aspirations for equality with the north had not been fulfilled.

In Cairo last week, the opposition National Democratic Alliance called on the army to revolt and promised Khartoum's Islamist government more defeats.

Until last year, government forces succeeded in dominating the battlefield because they were well-supplied with arms from Iran and China. More recently, the rebels, resisting the imposition of Islamic and military rule, began gaining territory in the south of the country.

This month they opened new fronts in the north and east, forcing the government to order a general mobilization after the reported loss of three small towns and the advance of the rebel force toward the crucial power station.

Independent confirmation of the rebels' successes could not be obtained.

The apparent military upset has dented the battlefield superiority widely credited to the government troops since the army seized power in 1989. It has also presented the Khartoum regime with the prospect of intensified fighting, military defeat -- or negotiated reform, according to analysts.

"There could be a fundamental change in Khartoum, a radical change in government, whether it comes from outside or within," said Francis M. Deng, former Sudan foreign affairs minister, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

Sudanese Information Minister and government spokesman Brigadier al-Tayeb Ibrahim Mohamed Khair disputed the rebel victory claim, telling a news briefing in Khartoum that the situation in the Blue Nile area "is quiet, with no movement on the enemy side."

A State Department official said the fighting appeared to have been replaced, at least for the moment, by the flurry of diplomatic activity.

U.S. policy-makers said they hoped that the government in Khartoum would retreat from its effort to create an Islamic state and permit democratic elections. The Clinton administration also wants Sudan to negotiate regional stability with its neighbors.

In the meantime, the United States is providing $20 million worth of nonlethal defensive military equipment, such as transport planes, uniforms and tents, to Sudan's neighbors, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Uganda.

"It sends a message that Sudan's neighbors are very concerned about its behavior. We share that concern," said a State Department official.

"The Sudanese government, we believe, has been fragile for some time," he added. "It is obviously under additional pressure right now. They need to get serious about reconciliation."

Pub Date: 1/19/97

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad