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Sudan Upbeat on Talks with Northeastern Rebels

Sudan's foreign minister says he is optimistic about peace talks opened this week with northeastern rebels.

Foreign Minister Lam Akol offered an upbeat assessment of the talks taking place in Eritrea between Sudanese government and rebel representatives from northeastern Sudan. He says he is optimistic because he knows already where the two sides stand on matters. The discussions aim to end a 16-year conflict, one of several that have plagued Sudan in recent decades.

But in wide-ranging remarks to foreign media in Paris, Akol was more guarded when it came to his government's position on a possible U.N. peacekeeping role in another conflict, that of Darfur in western Sudan.

"The government of National Unity's position was very clear when the issue was raised in January of this year, that we are against the coming of U.N. forces under any pretext while there was no peace agreement in Darfur," he said. "And that after a peace agreement has arrived, we are ready to discuss as a government with the U.N. on whatever role it would want to play on the implementation of the peace process."

Akol also pointed out that, so far, the United Nations has failed to send the 10,000 peacekeepers it promised to deploy in southern Sudan to monitor yet another truce. He suggested that should be the U.N.'s first priority.

South African President Thabo Mbeki is expected to visit Sudan next week to urge Khartoum to approve a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Darfur. The mission would replace an overstretched and under-equipped African Union force trying to monitor a cease-fire there, which is widely ignored.

Reuters reports that a U.N. official in Sudan says U.N. troops would not be able to deploy in Darfur before January of next year. The conflict in Darfur, pitting Arab Janjaweed militia against rebel factions, has killed tens of thousands of people, and displaced some two million Sudanese.

The Sudanese government has signed a truce with Darfur's main rebel faction. But leaders of two others want changes in the text, something the Sudanese government has ruled out.