The first reports from Khartoum sounded an unmistakable alarm last week. Sudanese President Gaafar Nimeiri charged that a Libyan air force Tupolev-22 had tried to bomb his country’s main radio transmitter at Omdurman, one of the capital’s satellite cities, missing its target but killing five civilians. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whose country shares borders with both countries, promptly put his 500,000-man army on alert in response to the 1967 mutual defence pact with the Sudan. Washington sent two airborne warning and control systems (AWACS) surveillance planes to an Egyptian air base not far from the Sudanese border. But as the days passed, there was growing suspicion of Nimeiri’s version of the events.
Observers from both outside and inside the Sudan speculated that Nimeiri launched the raid himself, against his own people. His apparent motive: to provoke the reluctant Egyptian and U.S. governments into increasing their military support, which he greatly needs to defeat southern Christian and spirit-worshipping Animist rebels. Indeed, gains by the Libyanand Ethiopian-backed insurgents in the south over recent weeks have stopped the Sudan’s two largest development projects. They also threaten Africa’s largest country with full-scale civil war.
Rebel leader Joseph Oduho of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, vis-
iting London, was the first to charge that the bomber was Sudanese, not Libyan. And a report by The Times of London quickly supported that claim with testimony by British analysts and reliable Sudanese citizens who do not oppose Nimeiri. According to those sources, the raid’s target was not the Omdurman transmitter but the adjacent house of influential opposition leader Sadiq al-Mahdi, chief of the moderate Moslem Ansar sect. Al-Mahdi has been in jail since last September, when he criticized Nimeiri for amputating thieves’ hands after the president had imposed Sharia, the severe Islamic legal code, on the country.
The air strike report_
edly occurred only hours after Nimeiri had stalked out of a stormy prison interview with alMahdi, who had refused the president’s offer of release unless all other political prisoners were liberated with him. Still, other analysts accuse Nimeiri of achieving two ends with the same bomb. He had warned opponents against further coup attempts (he has survived at least five in his 15 years in power) and he also won the military backup both Cairo
and Washington had refused except in the event of external aggression.
When Sudanese Vice-President Omar Mohammed Tayib returned from an official visit to Washington three weeks ago and announced a U.S. airlift of arms, the Pentagon swiftly responded that his boast was “premature.” But Congress confirmed an arms shipment within days of the disputed air raid.
Whether or not suspicions of Nimeiri’s motives are confirmed, the incident effectively freezes recent Egyptian attempts to inch toward re-establishing relations with Libya—a development that has unsettled Nimeiri. Over the past year Mubarak has met four times with special Libyan envoy Ahmed Kaddhaf el-Addam, a cousin of strongman Col. Moammar Khadafy. At the same time, Mubarak has been nervous about too close an association with Nimeiri’s efforts to make the Sudan an official Islamic state and appease the fundamentalist Moslem Brotherhood in case that move should fuel Egypt’s own smouldering fundamentalist embers.
In the past month the Sudanese rebels have registered important gains in their quest for autonomy. In early February an insurgent attack stopped work on a $220-million exploration project sponsored by the U.S.-based Chevron Oil Co. designed to ship oil through a 1,500-km pipeline to the Red Sea. Three foreign workers were killed and seven others were injured. A week later the rebels raided the camp of a Frenchowned construction consortium, taking seven hostages, four of whom are still missing. That assault effectively suspended work on the 360-km Jonglei Canal, which the southern forces oppose because it would supply water to the north and to Egypt.
Indeed, the rebels have consistently outwitted the Sudan’s demoralized and undisciplined army, which Nimeiri has deliberately kept weak after officers attempted a coup last fall. But even in his Moslem strongholds in the north, frus-
tration with his regime
is growing. The day after the controversial bombing raid, police had to use tear gas to disperse anti-Nimeiri demonstrations in Khartoum—the second such protest in a month. Indeed, the best indicator of the president’s shaky hold may be the fact that when the government called for a national show of support last week, only 500 citizens turned up.
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