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US Encouraged by Darfur Rebel Agreement

The U.S. special envoy for Sudan, Andrew Natsios, says he is encouraged by the agreement reached Monday by eight Darfur rebel groups on a common platform for peace talks with the Sudanese government. Formal negotiations between the Khartoum government and the rebels are expected to begin in October. VOA's David Gollust reports the State Department.

Much of the focus of international diplomacy on Darfur has been on assembling an upgraded international peacekeeping force for the troubled region.

But Natsios says the only way to end the Darfur crisis is through a political settlement, and thus he is "very encouraged" by the deal struck Monday in Arusha, Tanzania among rebel groups on a common platform in advance of peace talks with the government.

In a telephone conference call with State Department reporters, the U.S. envoy called the Arusha agreement, and last week's unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution on Darfur peacekeeping, "critical turning points" in the conflict.

"The Arusha meeting that just concluded a couple days ago in Tanzania was, I think, a reenergizing of the political process, and now will begin a formal sequencing of events that I hope will lead to a political settlement," said Natsios.

"The only way the crisis in Darfur is going to be resolved is through a political settlement. In many respects the purpose of the peacekeeping force, beyond protection of the civilians and non-combatants and the relief effort, is to implement a peace settlement. In fact that's specifically called for in the resolution," he continued.

Natsios, who last visited Sudan three weeks ago, said he believes Sudanese authorities are prepared to be flexible in the October negotiations, even though the Khartoum government has said it is not prepared to renegotiate terms of the Darfur peace deal it signed with some rebel factions in Nigeria in May last year.

The fractious Darfur rebels, in their unity accord this week brokered by U.N. Special Envoy Jan Eliasson and his African Union counterpart Salim Ahmed Salim, agreed on a common approach on power, wealth-sharing and land and humanitarian issues.

After months of bitter negotiations with Sudan, the U.N. Security Council last week approved a resolution authorizing a force of 26,000 U.N. and African Union peacekeepers to replace a beleaguered 7,000 member A.U. mission, in Darfur since 2004.

The handover of authority from the African Union to the hybrid force is to occur by December 31, though Natsios said he hopes that a U.N. command structure and a funding mechanism for the new force, expected to cost $2 billion a year, will be in place well before year's end.

The mission will be led by a Nigerian commander and, at the insistence of Sudan, will be largely African. But Natsios said it is already apparent that non-African troops will have to be used to round out the peacekeeping force, which will be one of the largest in U.N. history.

"I think there is an understanding by the Sudanese government that we're going to have to go outside Africa," said Natsios. "This is a sensitive issue internally within certain constituencies of the Sudanese government, and so they're going to keep repeating these things."

"But an agreement has been reached, and we expect that the Sudanese government is going to implement what they've agreed to, which is that if we can't get sufficient trained troops, we will go outside of Africa, which I have to say I expect is going to happen," he added.

Natsios said he does not think Sudan will renege on the peacekeeping understanding but he noted that if it does, President Bush has already made clear the United States would pursue new U.N. sanctions against Khartoum.

He said the United States, under the U.N. assessment system, will pay more than one-fourth of the cost of the Darfur force and may also provide some logistical support, as it did for the African Union deployment. But he said he cannot envisage American troops being part of the U.N. mission, largely because Sudan would not consider the United States a neutral party.

The conflict in Darfur began in early 2003 when local rebels took up arms against the government. Khartoum responded by backing Arab militia allies in a scorched earth campaign in the western region that led to the deaths of at least 200,000 people and displaced more than 2 million more.