Torit, the capital of Eastern Equatoria State, was the site of the 1955 mutiny that led to the first civil war. For much of the current conflict it was the SPLA headquarters, until recaptured by Khartoum in 1992 in the wake of rebel faction fighting. Its capture on 30 August threatens government control of Juba, a threat taken sufficiently seriously by United Nations for it to commence an immediate evacuation of staff from the southern capital.

The SPLA claims that Khartoum’s pullout stems from domestic pressure rather than its own failure to observe a cease-fire yet to be agreed. Spokesman Samson Kwaje points out that the SPLA went ahead with talks in June despite ongoing government offensives that recaptured the strategic town of Gogrial and displaced 100,000 people from the oil fields of Upper Nile.

Accusing Khartoum of giving "flimsy reasons for their withdrawal" Kwaje claims: "These reasons were more out of internal difficulties facing the regime in Khartoum. Since the signing of the Machakos Protocol on July 20th 2002, there have been sharp differences among senior politicians and officials as well as religious leaders allied to the regime. Most of these groupings are opposed to the Machakos Protocol on the grounds that El-Beshir and those close to him have given away the South and have made a grave mistake by allegedly exempting Southern Sudan from the application of strict Islamic sharia."

While the government refuses to return to the talks until the SPLA shows it is serious abut peace by agreeing to a comprehensive cessation of hostilities – which the rebels refuse, particularly now while they enjoy the advantage of the rainy season – Khartoum appears to object to virtually every aspect of the SPLA’s negotiating position.

A September 5 statement by SUNA news agency warned: "The high hopes of our people generated by that historical signing are now threatened to be frustrated by a position on power sharing presented by the SPLM/A. That is completely incompatible with The Machakos Protocol, in many of its parts particularly these obvious ones: (a) Reintroducing the issue of the relation between state and religion. (b) The structure of government. (c) The boundaries of the south."

Khartoum objects to SPLA proposals for a secular federal capital in addition to the South’s opt out from Sharia law in the proposed transitional constitution and to any concessions on the 1956 borders, which places the Nuba Mountains, Abyei and southern Blue Nile in the north of the country. These so-called "marginalised areas" are currently controlled by the rebels, who insist that they should be part of the south. The Nuba Mountains cease-fire is holding but only just, as local confidence in the process rapidly ebbs away.

Suleiman Rahhal, editor of Nuba Vision, warns that it would be impossible for Khartoum to re-impose Sharia law in the areas controlled by the SPLA. "The first time they try to sentence someone in the ‘liberated areas’ for drinking alcohol there would be total breakdown of order and an immediate resumption of the fighting. The Nuba haven’t endured 15 years of siege and starvation to just to have their rights taken away at the peace talks."

Khartoum is unwilling to listen to complaints it regards as treason. "After the Machakos protocol we were optimistic that peace was close in sight but the traitors and agents violated the agreement thinking that we have accepted peace out of weakness," President Bashir told 20,000 supporters on September 5. He vowed that "Our army will fight for another 13 years to retake Torit", referring to his regime’s time in power.

Complaining of SPLA demands for the creation of a secular federal capital, Bashir insisted that: "We reject this demand and declare aloud that Khartoum is the capital of Islam, and will never be anything other than a Muslim city. We were discussing power-sharing with Garang but he preferred to enter Torit by force." Declaring a general mobilisation and a new Jihad to retake Torit, and threatening to cut off aid flights until a ceasefire is agreed, the government’s increasingly inflammatory language appears to reflect a hardening of attitudes towards Machakos. It may represent a desire to extricate itself from the agreement on self-determination for the south.

The pullout came at a time of widespread rioting in Khartoum, following the redetention of Islamic ideologue Hassan el Turubi, - who was subsequently moved from house arrest to the notorious Kober prison. This doesn’t augur well for the President: Turabi has managed to serve in every recent government by somehow finding himself in jail virtually every time there has been a regime-change.

Since falling out with his former mentor two years ago, Bashir has severely weakened his power base and is increasingly dependent on hardliners within the military, who reject his territorial concessions as much as the Islamists object to what they regard as his vacillations on sharia.

Kwaje commented "If President El Beshir has failed to rally his hardliners behind Machakos he should not blame us… Walking out of Talks because of positions expressed is nothing but an evasion of issues and a pretext to abandon the Talks. This is a clear indication that Khartoum is not interested in a peaceful resolution of the conflict. The National Islamic Front (NIF) is not interested in sharing power with the SPLM/SPLA. It is bent to absorb the Movement into its theocratic and dictatorial system rather than accept it as a partner in an Interim National Government."

The pressure is not only internal. Egypt has become virulent in its denunciations of the Protocol, leading to a growing diplomatic spat with Khartoum. Yet growing Arab discomfort with US policy allows Bashir increasing room for manoeuvre. The likelihood of war in Iraq combined with the failure to address the Palestinian crisis is reworking the geopolitical orientation of the region, and cosying up to Washington no longer looks such an attractive option for a regime with pretensions to leadership of the Islamic world. Hence the current rhetoric and the hardening of attitudes.

While the troika of Britain, US and Norway (recently bolstered by the appointment of an Italian special representative) are outwardly optimistic that they can coerce both sides back to talks to end what the Washington Post describes as "greatest humanitarian disaster on earth", Khartoum appears to be looking for alternatives to the IGAD process. High level missions to Chad, Libya, Nigeria, Syria, Saudi Arabia and China and discussions on reopening the earlier Libyan Egyptian Initiative for peace in Sudan– which specifically rules out self-determination for the south - indicate the regime’s apparent willingness to repudiate the terms of reference agreed in the Machakos Protocol.

Up to now Washington has been uncharacteristically tolerant of a regime it accuses of being a state sponsor of terror, which is surprising, given Khartoum’s known links with both Bin Laden and Iraq. Sudan’s inclusion in the US civil lawsuit against alleged financiers of September 11, together with recent accusations of harbouring El Qaida gold, is leading to rapid reappraisal of this policy.

As Congress gears up to reinstate the stalled Sudan Peace act and talks of granting millions of dollars of direct aid to the south should the peace process break down, Bashir has been looking for help from the Arab League. Yet this strategy is probably counterproductive as the only way to keep Sudan united is to make some fundamental concessions on the country’s identity. A secular federal constitution and an end to the regime’s idea that it represents an Arab state are issues that Bashir may find impossible to concede but reinventing Sudan as a multi-cultural society is probably the only way to maintain its territorial integrity.

Redefining "Self-determination" to exclude independence and other devices to maintain Sudan’s "Arab-Islamic identity" currently being explored by Khartoum are not realistic options for convincing the south. Without wide-ranging concessions on the nature of the transitional constitution the southerners’ clamour for all out independence will rule out any chance of a compromise solution.

A rebel push towards Juba could represent the military climax of the conflict. If the SPLA manage to take possession of the capital of the south Garang may find it impossible to resist the call for immediate secession. If both sides believe they still have everything to fight for, they are unlikely to return to serious negotiations. It may require more than just optimism to put the peace process back on track.