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High Ranking US Diplomat Heads for Sudan Seeking Peace in Darfur

Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick is leaving for Africa in an effort to stop a spike in violence in Sudan's Darfur region, where fighting has left at least 180,000 people dead and has displaced about two million more from their homes and villages. Mr. Zoellick is also expected to push for implementation of a peace agreement signed earlier this year to end a 21-year-old civil war in Sudan.

This is the fourth visit Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick has made to Sudan this year, an effort that top State Department officials say is strong evidence of the Bush administration's commitment to bringing peace to the war-torn country.

Mr. Zoellick's first stop is in Nairobi, where he is to meet with leaders of the fractured Darfur rebel movement, which launched an armed rebellion against the Khartoum government in early 2003.

Government-supported Janjaweed Arab militias have been fighting the Darfur rebels in western Sudan, and have frequently attacked civilians in a conflict the Bush administration has labeled genocide. Sudan's government denies supporting the Janjaweed, although U.S. officials and other groups say there is significant evidence that Khartoum arms and assists the militias.

While in Nairobi, Mr. Zoellick will try to bring together factions of Darfur's main rebel group, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLM), so they will have a unified position in negotiations with the Khartoum government, designed to end the conflict in Darfur.

The Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazier, who is traveling with Mr. Zoellick, says the rebels in Darfur must honor a cease-fire agreement, if they expect support from the United States.

"The critical component here is that all sides see the United States as a critical player in trying to bring the SLM together, creating that neutral space for them to have these negotiations, and then to push them," she said. "Because our message to them, getting back to Darfur, is that you cannot win friends or win advantage at the negotiating table if you are fighting on the battlefield, if you are attacking civilians. That is an unacceptable space."

After meetings in Nairobi, Mr. Zoellick will head to Khartoum to put pressure on the Sudanese government to stop support for the Janjaweed militias.

He will also push for implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, signed last January, to end a lengthy civil war between the mostly Muslim north and Christian and animist groups in Southern Sudan.

That conflict is separate from the Darfur violence, but Assistant Secretary Frazier, who visited Sudan last month, says the North-South peace agreement, which she refers to as CPA, can serve as a model for bringing peace to Darfur.

"The main purpose is to really push for this Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which we see as interconnected with ending the conflict in Darfur, because, as the Comprehensive Peace Agreement provides a framework for power-sharing and wealth sharing, that can be used to support bringing the rebels in Darfur into a unified government, a government of national unity," added Ms. Frazier. "So it is critical, we have a framework in the CPA, so it is critical to show the success of that CPA, so that it will actually give more confidence to those rebels that it will work, that power-sharing and wealth-sharing are a reality."

After meetings in Khartoum, Mr. Zoellick will travel to Darfur and visit at least one of the many camps housing the large number of displaced people in western Sudan.

Mr. Zoellick is also scheduled to meet with commanders and troops from the African Union, which has deployed more than 6,000 peacekeepers in the area.