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Improving Sudanese-Eritrean ties bode well for peace in Sudan

5/18/2005 8:57am

TRIPOLI, May 18 (AFP) -- A gathering of African leaders in the Libyan capital this week saw a thaw in the strained ties between Sudan and Eritrea that may pave the way for peace in Sudan's troubled western and eastern regions.

Sudanese President Omar al-Beshir and Isaias Afeworki of Eritrea met on the fringes of the seven-way African summit in Tripoli Monday -- their first face-to-face encounter in many years.

The two are bitter enemies that have long accused each other of providing sanctuary and support to opposition groups.

Although Kharthoum and Asmara were quick to downplay the significance of the meeting, Egypt and Libya, under whose aegis it was held, said it bodes well for the prospects of comprehensive peace in Sudan.

Eritrean presidential cabinet director Yemane Gebremeskel said in Asmara that the meeting was "part of a normal routine."

Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail simply described it as "an important beginning" that should help "remove obstacles that impede the launching of relations."

He pointed to Beshir's demands that "Asmara refrains from harbouring armed Sudanese opposition and stops offering assistance that that opposition."

But Egyptian presidential spokesman Suleiman Awad insisted that the meeting would improve the chances of a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Sudan's western Darfur region, as well as that in its eastern province.

"Eritrea has an important role to play," he said.

The meeting helped "achieve some calm and breakthrough in contacts between Sudan and Eritrea," added Egypt's Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit.

"It will have a positive impact on efforts to find a solution to the Darfur conflict," agreed Ali al-Tiriki, the senior Libyan official responsible for African affairs.

Recognising Eritrea's influence on Sudanese opposition groups, Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi had invited Afeworki, for the first time, to attend the mini-African summit on Darfur that closed with a pledge to resume negotiations between rebels and Khartoum.

Eritrea has good relations with all the major opposition movements in Sudan, many of them armed groups that have openly pledged from Asmara to overthrow the government in Khartoum.

They include the two main rebel groups in the war-torn western region of Darfur, the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) that have delegations in Asmara and rebels of the Eastern Front.

The Eastern Front, made up of the Beja Congress and the Free Lions Movement, are based in Asmara.

Eritrea also hosts the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), a grouping of northern, eastern and western Sudan opposition forces, which currently represents the strongest political and military challenge to Khartoum.

Sudan and Eritrea broke off diplomatic relations in 1994 after the regime in Khartoum accused Asmara of aiding the NDA, which also includes the southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM).

Khartoum and the SPLM signed a peace agreement last January that ended more than two decades of conflict between south and north. The SPLM has however retained its NDA membership.

Eritrea also turned over the Sudanese embassy in Asmara to the NDA, allowing it to use the premise as its headquarters. The move caused Sudanese-Eritrean ties to hit an all-time low.

The two countries restored diplomatic ties in 1997, but tensions continued, particular after the Eastern front escalated military activities against Sudanese government forces, and SLM and JEM leaders settled in Asmara.

In March, the UN special envoy for Sudan Jan Pronk, paid a visit to Asmara for talks with the Eritrean leader on the role he could play to help reach a comprehensive peace in Sudan.

Afeworki said at the time that Eritrea would "continue to work diligently with all concerned parties to bring about a comprehensive solution to the Sudanese crises."

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