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Mbeki Upbeat on Prospects for Darfur Peace


South African President Thabo Mbeki wrapped up a two-day trip to Sudan late Wednesday sounding optimistic about the prospects for peace in Darfur. His visit was part of intense diplomatic activity in Sudan aimed at easing the crisis in war-torn province. But Sudanese officials deny Mr. Mbeki went to Khartoum to press Sudan to accept U.N. peacekeepers in Darfur. Noel King reports for VOA from Khartoum.

Mr. Mbeki commented only briefly on the situation in Sudan's embattled western region after he met with Sudanese President Omer Al Bashir.

The South African leader expressed optimism that Sudan will agree to the second phase of a proposed three-phase plan for United Nations support in Darfur.

Sudan agreed last November to permit the three-stage transition from the current African Union mission to a larger force of more than 20,000 African Union and U.N. peacekeepers. But in March, President Bashir rejected the core elements of the plan to have U.N. peacekeepers help protect civilians from a government-backed campaign of violence. More than 200,000 people have died in the four years of violence.

Mr. Mbeki told reporters in Khartoum he is hopeful that the second phase of the support package will be implemented soon. That "heavy support" phase involves the deployment of more than 2,200 heavily armed U.N. troops backed by attack helicopters and with a mandate to protect civilians.

"An agreement has been reached on almost all questions," said Thabo Mbeki. "There are some final negotiations that will take place between the United Nations, the African Union and the Sudanese government. I'm quite confident that those matters will be resolved."

At high-level talks in Addis Ababa on Tuesday, Sudan reportedly agreed again to allow the second phase of U.N. support.

But months of conflicting signals by the Sudanese government have left many skeptical. Critics charge that Sudan is only buying time, while the conflict continues to rage.

Humanitarian observers have warned that 2.5 million people madehomeless by the conflict will remain at risk until a sizable force is deployed in the region to stem chaos.

The United States has threatened sanctions against Sudan if it refuses U.N. entry into the region. But on Wednesday, U.S. special envoy to Sudan Andrew Natsios said Washington will hold off on imposing unilateral sanctions to allow the U.N. to negotiate further with Sudanese leaders.

Mr. Mbeki did not travel to Darfur but visited the southern Sudanese capital city of Juba.

A Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in 2005 between the Sudanese government and southern rebels ended 21 years of civil war between north and south Sudan. Mr. Mbeki said he was pleased with the progress of the north-south agreement and would look to strengthen trade ties with Sudan.

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