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Sunday, 22 September, 2002, 08:55 GMT 09:55 UK
On Sudan's tense frontline
Sudan
Sudan's civil war has dragged on for decades

The dry dirt road which leads into Torit from the east is littered with dead bodies.

Some lie partly hidden in the long grass. Others are sprawled in their camouflage uniforms in and around the mud trenches which mark the approaches to the town.

The area is heavily-mined, and scattered with broken mortars, tanks and machine guns.


They want me to be an Arab, a Muslim. How can we remain in one country with such behaviour?

Oyay Deng Alak, SPLA's front commander
Torit was captured a fortnight ago by Sudan's rebel army, the SPLA. It is not much of a town - one avenue lined with shabby brick built shops - but it is an important strategic position, close to the Nile, neighbouring Uganda and Kenya, and the southern capital, Juba.

"It's a big victory for us," said SPLA Commander Wilson Deng Kuoirot, watching a crowd of his soldiers singing a triumphant song in what had been the Sudanese Government's barracks in Torit. "Next we will take Juba."

'Morale low'

A captured government tank raced past us - heading for the new frontline some 65 kilometres (40 miles) further west along the road towards Juba.

Suddenly, the soldiers stopped singing and squinted towards the sky. "Antonov bomber - quick, inside the shelter," said Kuoirot. High in the clouds above us, a government bomber circled slowly over the town, then headed away towards the west without dropping its bombs.


I think we've made it very clear that if it takes seeing that part of the country seceding so we can have peace, then why not? Let's go that extra mile and let us see it secede

Muhammad Ahmad Dirdeiry, Sudan's charge d'affaires in Nairobi
"The enemy morale is very low," said Kuoirot, bringing out seven young prisoners of war.

"They're recruited by force to come and fight against us for a cause they don't understand."

The PoWs stood quietly in the courtyard - their light skin and distinctly Arabic features in sharp contrast to the black Africans surrounding them.

"They want me to be an Arab, a Muslim," explained the SPLA's front commander, Oyay Deng Alak, at his field headquarters close to the new frontlines.

"How can we remain in one country with such behaviour? Dividing the country ... is better than remaining in a situation of continuous fighting."

Discrepant talk

But such belligerent talk - and such hostile activity - all seems at odds with the very real progress which both sides have been making in recent months towards a comprehensive peace settlement.

In July, government and rebel negotiators signed a breakthrough deal in Machakos, Kenya.

The Islamic Government of Sudan agreed that the south of the country need not practise Sharia law, and could share power and wealth. Most importantly, the government agreed that the south had the right to full independence after a six year transition period, if it voted for it.

"I think we've made it very clear that if it takes seeing that part of the country seceding so we can have peace, then why not? Let's go that extra mile and let us see it secede," said Sudan's charge d'affaires in Nairobi, Muhammad Ahmad Dirdeiry.

But the SPLA's recent offensive against Torit prompted the government to pull out of the second round of peace talks.

Now Khartoum wants a full ceasefire before resuming negotiations.

Land grab

Ending such a long, messy conflict was always going to be difficult. Both sides seem to be trying to gain extra territory - the SPLA in the south, the government further north, around the new oil fields of Western Upper Nile - before any ceasefire begins, and just in case the whole peace process collapses anyway.

But after 19 years of constant conflict, and an estimated two million dead, the civilian population is desperate for peace.

Sudan
Continued fighting undermines the peace talks
"I'm lost," says 28-year-old Nuon Kerna, walking through the bush in the midday heat, with her two young daughters behind her and a five-month-old baby balanced in a wicker basket on her head.

Nuon is one of tens of thousands of civilians displaced by the fighting in Western Upper Nile.

She says she was forced to flee her village in July when it was attacked by government helicopter gunships. Now she has got separated from the rest of her family.

"This happens three or four times every year," she says, stopping to feed her baby. "But we are powerless. If someone gives us power, then we can stop always running."


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