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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 September 2005, 17:01 GMT 18:01 UK
Sudan eyes gains from terror talks
By David Loyn
BBC News, Khartoum

There can be few more surprising places in the world to see CIA officials openly discussing terrorism than here in Sudan, but the new geopolitical framework since 9/11 has made strange bedfellows.

Sudan President Omar al-Bashir
President Bashir hopes the conference will improve ties with the US
Osama bin Laden was based in Khartoum for several years in the 1990s, and in 1998 the United States launched a cruise missile strike on what the US said was a chemical weapons facility, but which Sudan has always claimed was a pharmaceutical plant.

Although Sudan remains on the US banned list of states that sponsor terrorism, both American and British intelligence officials have come to sit with their counterparts from 12 African countries.

China, which now has peacekeeping troops in southern Sudan, is also represented, as is the United Nations.

This is the second regional conference bringing together intelligence officials from East Africa at this level.

Recognition

The US is trying to persuade them to work together, sharing information on Islamist networks in order to make it harder to al-Qaeda and its sympathisers to operate in this region.

US troops stationed in the Horn of Africa
The US has set up an anti-terror base to monitor East Africa
Most of the conference has been held behind closed doors, but public speeches by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and his two vice-presidents show how much Sudan has to gain from hosting such an event.

Sudan is seeking international recognition for securing a comprehensive peace deal that ended Africa's longest civil war, in the south of the country.

That peace deal finally came into effect in January. But the continuing conflict in Darfur, in western Sudan, has proved harder to stop.

The violence in Darfur makes it politically impossible for the US to take Sudan off the list of states that sponsor terrorism for now. Only a year ago, the then US Secretary of State Colin Powell called the killings there genocide.

A tough UN resolution has demanded that the Khartoum government should do more to bring peace to Darfur, but speaking at the conference, Sudan's Vice-President Ali Osman Mohammed Taha said that the Darfur conflict was continuing only because of foreign interference.

Sanctions

He was talking about Eritrea, which has not been invited to the counter-terrorism conference.

Mr Taha called on Eritrea to involve itself in dialogue to help to stabilise Darfur. He also made a sustained attack on the international media for focussing attention on Darfur, where around 200,000 people have lost their lives.

Many more remain in squalid camps. The countryside remains scorched after Janjaweed militia, with at least the tacit agreement of the government, if not its active support, went on the rampage.

Hosting the conference is part of a sustained diplomatic push by Sudan to shake off its pariah status.

Economic sanctions imposed by the US make it difficult to attract investors and develop the economy.

The sanctions are seen as a major impediment to normalisation in a country impatient to rejoin the world community.

The discovery of large oil reserves in recent years has made the search for a diplomatic solution even more urgent.

Officials here like to highlight Sudan's long-term credentials in fighting terrorism. It even offered to hand over Osama bin Laden as early as 1996, an offer that the US rejected at the time.

When the opportunity for this second regional conference on counter-terrorism came up, Sudan competed for the right to host it.

The first was held in Nairobi - a logical choice, since Kenya was has suffered from several attacks by al-Qaeda.

The decision of the CIA to agree to come to Sudan shows the pragmatism of the intelligence community against the continuing political desire of America to punish Sudan for what has happened in Darfur.

The world may not even be able to agree on how to define terrorism, and it was hard to secure agreement on a resolution to condemn terrorism "in all its forms" proposed by the UK at the recent UN summit of world leaders.

But the issue is reshaping alliances in a surprising way.




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