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As Dry Season Nears, Sudan Rebels Are on Solid Ground

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As the rains draw to a close in the lush bush of southern Sudan, the commanders of a 14-year-old rebellion are contemplating a dry-season campaign that could - they hope - finally end four decades of unrest in the giant country.

The guerrilla fighters of Col. John Garang's Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) say that the capture of Juba, the main town in southern Sudan, would finally bring about de facto independence from the Arabic north for south Sudan's black, mainly non-Muslim peoples.

The first port on the Nile south of the vast Sudd swamps, Juba also has the only major airport in the region. For Thomas Cirillo, commander of the SPLA forces to the south of the town, its significance is obvious.

"Juba is their logistical center for most of southern Sudan," he says. "If we take it will be very difficult for them to come again and attack" rebel-held areas.

Popular but often ill-organized, the SPLA has seen its fortunes wax and wane sharply over the past six years, from division and near defeat in 1991 to battlefield victories and strategic dominance in the early part of this year. March was the SPLA's finest month, when a series of attacks captured major government bases at Yei and Kaya and secured the vital supply route across the Ugandan border at Kajo Kaji.

According to Commander Cirillo, the SPLA will resume its offensive when October brings an end to the rains, which make southern Sudan's dirt roads almost impassable. Surrounded on three sides and with its river communications threatened, Juba is finally ready to fall, he claims.

The thirtysomething Cirillo typifies the SPLA's low profile, low- tech war. His headquarters is, he admits, wherever he happens to find himself. He travels with a small escort, a radio, and a single four-wheel-drive vehicle. The SPLA may be successful of late, but it remains very poor.

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