Nairobi, Kenya (CNSNews.com) - A new think tank report questions Sudan's commitment to peace talks with southern rebels, following stepped-up attacks on civilians by militias allegedly sponsored by the government.
The International Crisis Group (ICG) report, released in the Kenyan capital, said attention must be paid to the political and commercial agendas of the pro-government militias in southern Sudan, and the "spoiler" role they could play in the future.
During the first month of this year, militias were accused of staging attacks in the oil-rich, rebel-held areas of the Western Upper Nile, despite the signing of a ceasefire agreement last October.
"The attacks are part of the government's long term strategy of depopulating oil-rich areas through indiscriminate attacks on civilians, in order to clear the way for further development of infrastructure," the ICG said.
The Brussels-based think tank said the fighting was the most serious threat to the peace process since mid-2002, but that a cessation of hostilities agreement had been signed on Feb. 4
Last week, however, an independent source close to the Sudanese government denied the fighting was over.
The source told CNSNews.com that rebel Sudanese Peoples' Liberation Army (SPLA) positions in Western Upper Nile had been under attack for more than two weeks from "local militias, supported by the government."
Eyewitnesses who spoke to ICG representatives accused militias of tactics including the abduction of women, gang rapes, ground assaults supported by helicopter gunships, the destruction of humanitarian relief sites and the torching of villages.
They raised fears that the militias could continue to threaten stability in southern Sudan whether or not any peace agreement was concluded between Khartoum and the rebels.
The ICG urged the SPLA to intensify its efforts to achieve reconciliation with militia leaders, to ensure post-peace process stability in the south.
It said international engagement remained the key to improving a still-fragile peace process, through ensuring that both the government and rebels respect ceasefire agreements.
"To avoid further patterns of military brinkmanship that threaten a collapse of the peace process, it is imperative that the international community vigorously and publicly condemn any further violations of the cessation of hostilities, and engage strongly on behalf of the peace process," said ICG Africa Program co-director John Prendergast.
"If the parties understand clearly the choice between the benefits of peace and the isolation of war, the prospects for a final peace agreement will be strengthened considerably."
Officials at Sudan's embassy in Nairobi denied claims that the government is sponsoring the militias.
The Bush administration is expected to report to Congress around April on the state of the Sudanese peace talks.
If Khartoum is assessed not to be cooperating in the peace process, Washington may impose new sanctions, based on the Sudan Peace Act.
The ICG quoted a U.S. official as warning that Sudan would make a big mistake in underestimating the American response if the government is judged to have deliberately derailed the peace process.
The 20-year civil war between the Islamist-dominated, Arab government of Sudan and black African Christians and animists in the south has claimed an estimated two million lives.
The U.S. peace initiative launched in September 2001 invigorated an eight-year-old peace process sponsored by a regional body called the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD).
IGAD envoy Gen. Lazaro Sumbeiywo forecast recently that peace in Sudan would be realized before the end of the year.
He spoke after the two parties signed an agreement on the issues of wealth- and
power-sharing, and committed themselves to tackling governance and security
issues when the talks resume, possibly on March 2.
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