By Matthew Lee
BANGKOK, Oct 20 (AFP) — US Secretary of State Colin Powell will travel to Kenya this week to “encourage progress” in Sudan peace talks and meet top Kenyan officials, the State Department said Monday.
Powell will arrive in Nairobi on Tuesday from Bangkok where he is attending the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit with US President George W. Bush, department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
“Secretary Powell will … engage with the Sudanese parties to encourage progress in the peace process,” he said in a statement. “The success of this process is an important (Bush) administration goal.”
Boucher added that Powell would also see senior officials in the Kenyan government to follow up on President Mwai Kibaki’s state visit to Washington earlier this month during which the war on terrorism was a major topic.
Kenya’s economy is heavily dependent on the tourism sector which has been badly damaged by a series of warnings from the United States and other nations alerting their citizens to terrorist threats in the country.
Kenyan officials, including Kibaki when he was in Washington, have repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, appealed for the US warning — which cites the threat of terrorists using shoulder-fired missiles to down commercial aircraft — to be lifted.
The Sudan peace talks, the latest round of which opened northwest of Nairobi on Friday, appear to be yielding significant progress but it was not clear on Monday whether Powell’s plan to attend signalled that a breakthrough on a final agreement was imminent.
State Department officials told AFP on Sunday that Powell had decided to make the trip after lengthy consideration but played down earlier suggestions that he would not go unless a deal to end Africa’s longest running civil war was in the works.
Kenyan Foreign Minister Kalonzo Musyoka, whose country is host and mediator at the talks, said last week that he expected Powell to participate either “to encourage both parties or to witness the signing of the agreement.”
Participants in the talks — including the delegation leaders from both sides, Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Taha and John Garang, leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) — have expressed optimism about reaching a permanent settlement in short order.
“I’m optimistic,” Garang said in comments published Saturday in the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat. “I believe we can sign as soon as possible.”
Taha was similarly upbeat at the opening of the talks on Friday.
“We are here with full dedication and determination to settle the remaining issues and we hope that in this hall that we signed an agreement on security, we will also sign a comprehensive peace agreement,” he said.
Asked if a final deal was feasible during the current round, Nick Haysom, an advisor to the lead Kenyan mediator, said: “It is possible.”
Bush has been anxious to see progress in the effort to end the 20-year-old war which has pitted rebels from the mainly Christian and animist south against the predominantly Muslim government in Khartoum.
Encouraged particularly by his conservative Christian supporters, the president appointed a special envoy to the peace process — former US senator John Danforth — and has approved US participation in the mediation which is led by the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) group.
US officials have held out the possibility of removing Sudan from its list of “state sponsors of terrorism” and removing other sanctions now in place against Khartoum as encouragement to reach a deal.
The last round of talks ended in late September with Taha and Garang signing a landmark deal on security arrangements for a six-year transition period during which the rebel-controlled south will enjoy self-rule.
Under that deal, after the test period of autonomy, an internationally supervised referendum will be held to allow the southern Sudanese to choose whether to remain part of Sudan or become independent.
The latest round is aimed at ironing out differences on the three outstanding issues: power- and wealth-sharing and the status of three disputed geographical areas.
War erupted in Sudan in 1983 and has since killed more than 1.5 million people and displaced four million others.