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Sudan Delegation Goes to Nigeria for Talks with Southern Rebels

A Sudanese government delegation has gone to Nigeria for talks with southern rebels. The planned talks will include the first vice president of Sudan as well as several other high level government officials. The government delegation left Khartoum Thursday en route to the Nigerian capital, Abuja.

Rebel leader John Garang of the Sudan People's Liberation Army, or SPLA, has already arrived in Abuja, and was briefly seen at the airport with President Olusegan Obasanjo.

It is not clear exactly when the talks will begin, but sources indicate it will be no earlier than Friday. President Obasanjo is currently in his home village for the Christmas holiday.

Former Nigerian military ruler Ibrahim Babangida is also expected to take part in the talks. He has been acting as President Obasanjo's emissary on the Sudanese crisis.

The Abuja meeting aims to build on progress made during weeks of formal peace talks in Kenya earlier this year. When the talks closed last month, the two sides extended their ceasefire until the end of March.

They have made much progress toward peace at the Kenya talks. The Muslim led government in Khartoum has agreed not to impose Islamic Sharia law in the mainly Christian and animist south. The government has also agreed to a six year period of self rule for the south, followed by a referendum on independence.

But the government and the rebels still have not agreed on how to share power in a transitional government during the six year period. They also disagree on how to divide the country's newly found oil wealth, which is mainly found in the south.

On Monday, the Sudanese parliament approved the extension of a much criticized state of emergency for a fourth year. Human rights groups have complained that the state of emergency has been used to suppress the political opposition.

Representatives of the Sudanese government and the SPLA have also recently met in the United States, where they reaffirmed their dedication to the peace process. Both sides pledged to avoid what they called "provocative" rhetoric before peace talks in Kenya resume in about two weeks.

The Sudanese civil war started in 1983 and has killed about 2 million people in the nearly 20 years since then.