THE nine-year civil war in southern Sudan over powersharing and religious freedom is far from over, despite peace talks this week that lasted longer than most analysts predicted.
Rather than reconciling differences between the Muslim government in Khartoum and the predominantly Christian and animist rebels in the south, the talks, which ended Wednesday in Nigeria, broke down over the issue of southern self-determination.
The rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) insisted on a referendum that could lead to an independent south, while the government opposed any move toward dividing the country.
But the two sides agreed to review a Nigerian proposal on federalism and to resume negotiations next month.
A United States official, commenting on the talks, sees "some usefulness in that some positions might have been clarified." But as far as progress toward ending the war, the official added, "I think it would be difficult seeing much coming out of this."
"It's a mess," says Francis Deng, a former Sudanese ambassador to the US, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington. "The fact that they have been talking is a good sign. But the war will continue as long as you haven't got the conditions of justice."
Sudan is predominantly Muslim, but the south remains an enclave for Christian and animist faiths. Since the war broke out in 1983, the SPLM has demanded regional autonomy for the south, a fair share of the national development budget, and a non-religious constitution.
Previous civilian governments have wavered over the first two points, but Khartoum has been adamant about a Muslim constitution, and last year, the military government of Gen. Omar Hassan al-Bashir instituted sharia, strict Islamic criminal law.
The Bashir government is willing, however, to allow majority non-Muslim areas to adopt secular criminal law.
The problem, as the SPLM sees it, arises in places like Khartoum, where more than 1 million southerners have fled from fighting and drought in the south. Non-Muslims in Muslim-majority areas would be subject to sharia, which includes amputations for specific crimes.
"The north is Islamic, going back a long way," Mr. Deng says. But the Bashir government, which seized power in a 1989 coup, is "less wavering, more clear cut [about] their vision of creating an Islamic state."
Meanwhile, both sides maintain that without a cease-fire accord, the civil war will continue. And despite significant advances by Khartoum over the past three months, in which the government has captured important rebel strongholds such as Kapoeta and Juba, the rebels remain confident.
John Garang, leader of the SPLM's armed wing, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), maintains that when faced with a larger government military force, the rebels simply retreat.
The US official agrees. "We don't see any indication the [rebels] have suffered any big battlefield losses. They let the government sit in the towns, then cut the supply lines."
Last year, the SPLA split, with the faction opposed to Mr. Garang calling for a referendum to allow division of Sudan. At the Nigeria talks this week, the Garang faction shifted its position on the issue, joining its rival faction in a unified demand for a referendum.
It is not clear whether the rebel unity at the negotiating table will hold up on the battlefield. The two factions have fought each other several times, though they agree on their opposition to a Muslim state.