The U.S. State Department's top diplomat for Africa left Washington Tuesday for the site of Sudan peace talks in Kenya, amid signs that a long-delayed peace accord between the Sudanese government and southern rebels may be close at hand.
There have been numerous disappointing delays in efforts to conclude an accord ending Sudan's two-decade-long north-south civil war.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that the parties have told the United States they have resolved remaining issues and he said that acting Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Charles Snyder has flown to the talks site at Naivasha, Kenya to help the sides put the deal in writing.
?They have indicated to us that they've reached agreements and that they expected to sign a deal,? he said. ?We've not seen that happen in actuality yet and we're going out to try to help them reach that kind of speedy conclusion that they've been talking about.?
The Bush administration made the search for peace in Sudan a major priority. The fighting between the Islamic government and mainly-Christian and animist southern rebels is believed to have killed more than one million people over the years and displaced millions more.
The parties struck an accord two years ago providing for a six-year period of autonomy for the south ending with a referendum on the region's political future.
The sides have also largely settled wealth and power-sharing issues, though the Kenyan-mediated talks have been hung up over other issues including whether Islamic law would apply in the capital, Khartoum during the autonomy period.
The north-south peace talks have been overshadowed in recent months by the situation in the western Darfur region in Sudan, where fighting between local rebels and Arab militias backed by the Khartoum government has prompted a new exodus of refugees, many fleeing into neighboring Chad.
A truce agreement reached in Chad a month ago was supposed to have ended the Darfur fighting and opened the area to humanitarian relief operations, but in his comments Tuesday, Mr. Boucher reiterated U.S. complaints that Sudanese authorities have been impeding access to Darfur by U.S. and other aid workers.
?Relief operations continue to be obstructed by both security on the ground and the government of Sudan, which is limiting the availability of visas and travel permits,? he stated. ?The onset of the rainy season in the next few weeks will make the delivery of aid continually more complicated as roads become impassable over the coming months.?
Mr. Boucher said U.S. officials estimate that nearly 1.1 million people have been displaced by the Darfur fighting. He said four planeloads of U.S.-provided plastic sheeting, blankets and water cans for refugees have gotten into Darfur in recent days, but that the need for such items still far outstrips the supply.