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Wednesday, 12 June, 2002, 19:43 GMT 20:43 UK
Sudan rebels rejoice at Kapoeta capture
SPLA fighters celebrate capture of Kapoeta
SPLA fighters buoyed up by Kapoeta victory

In the stifling afternoon heat - amid the ruins of a shattered town in Southern Sudan - a smartly-dressed, red-coated brass band strikes up a rousing, albeit rusty, tune.

It is a major victory for the SPLA - but a major defeat for the government

John Garang, SPLA leader

The SPLA are better fighters than bandsmen, but no matter, this is a celebration.

The rebels are jubilant about their capture of Kapoeta, a town situated close to the border with Kenya and Uganda.

Dressed in military fatigues, shaded by the delicate branches of an acacia tree, veteran rebel leader, John Garang, announces:

"It is a major victory for the SPLA - but a major defeat for the government."

Decaying bodies

A few metres away, in the earth trenches encircling the town, the results of the lightning assault can be seen - and smelt.

The SPLA are in no hurry to pick up the bodies of the enemy.

The remains of government soldiers lie, half-dressed, decaying in the heat.

One 22-year-old prisoner of war, speaking through a SPLA interpreter, says the attack on Sunday morning was so quick, he did not even have time to fetch his gun.

SPLA leader John Garang
Garang's group wants independence for southern Sudan

Kapoeta - with its ruined Catholic mission and its huddle of dilapidated huts - does not amount to much.

But its strategic location, close to the Kenyan and Ugandan borders, has made it bitterly fought over.

The SPLA lost the town in 1991 - but have no intention of relinquishing control again.

One young rebel, AK-47 slung casually over his shoulder, says: "This place is ours. We are never leaving."

Equally important is the haul of weaponry that the rebels captured in Kapoeta.

SPLA commanders claimed they had seized heavy field artillery, tanks and many small arms.

"Of course we are committed to peace talks," says the SPLA commander Oyany Deng Ajak.

"But this will not stop us from continuing military operations.

"From here, we have ordered our forces and we are moving to attack our enemy positions."

Fighting back

But the Khartoum government is already fighting back - militarily and politically.

There have been aerial attacks on the town - 13 bombs dropped from an Antonov on Tuesday morning.

The SPLA are scornful about this tactic, saying only ground forces pose a threat.

They say the remaining government solders are being hotly pursued through the bush, as they flee towards the next garrison town of Torit.

Car and machine gun left behind by government troops
SPLA claims it captured a haul of weaponry from government troops

However, Khartoum has also claimed the attack on Kapoeta violates the recent US-brokered agreement on conflict-free zones in Southern Sudan.

"It is a flagrant violation," says Dirdeiry Ahmed, the Sudanese charge d'affaires in Nairobi.

"Right now we are lodging a complaint with the United States, which is monitoring the agreement."

The government is demanding that the town be handed back.

"It should also stop any further attacks in that part of the country", says Mr Dirdeiry.

Peace efforts

These demands will not be accepted by the SPLA - but they do put pressure on the US team, led by special envoy John Danforth.

The Bush administration has recently stepped up efforts to bring an end to civil war in Sudan.

However critics say the Danforth approach - where specific areas have been singled out for attention - is open to manipulation by the warring sides.

The Sudanese Government is holding out the prospect of boycotting a fresh round of peace talks in Kenya.

Mr Dirdeiry says their attendance "depends on the response of the US to our legitimate claim".

The collapse of the talks would be embarassing, but not surprising.

The expectations were, in any case, low.

"There are no new ideas on the table," says John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group.

"And no serious international pressure pushing the sides to negotiate."

US President George W Bush
The US is pushing for an end to the civil war

In Kapoeta, the talk is not of peace but of war.

The capture of town has buoyed up the morale of the rebels.

Heavy field artillery is already being re-deployed to other front-line locations, such as around the bitterly contested oil-rich areas in Western Upper Nile.

When asked about the peace talks in Kenya, Commander Oyay Deng Ojak shrugs his shoulders pragmatically.

"We have had so many talks, and what's the result? We're still fighting after nearly twenty years - and we'll carry on until we get what we want."

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21 May 02 | Africa
25 Apr 02 | Africa
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