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Top US Envoy to Sudan Reports Progress in Darfur Negotiations

The United States top envoy to Sudan says there is progress on ending the escalating war in Sudan's western Darfur region following last week's high-level talks in Ethiopia.

Andrew Natsios says, while there may have not been a huge breakthrough, important steps were made last week in Addis Ababa, where the Sudanese government agreed in principle to a hybrid United Nations - African Union force to end nearly four years of violence in Darfur.

"I think one of the accomplishments of the effort was a consensus building among African leaders, among European leaders, the United States, the Chinese, the Russians were there and the Arab states behind an attempt to get a resolution of this and an effective and efficient peacekeeping operation," said Andrew Natsios. "Ultimately, if we do not protect the people on the ground, this is not going to succeed."

There has been a renewed urgency on the Darfur conflict. Ever since the signing of the Darfur Peace Agreement in May, the situation has deteriorated dramatically with new government offensives, intra-rebel fighting and increasing atrocities against civilians.

In this atmosphere, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the African Union Chairman Alpha Omar Konare hosted last Thursday's meeting in Addis Ababa to address the crisis and, hopefully, get Khartoum to begin accepting the idea of an international peacekeeping force for Darfur - something it has repeatedly refused to allow.

Natsios says the Addis meeting produced a series of agreements, some of which the Khartoum government had previously rejected.

One in particular is a package of so-called United Nations heavy support of the African Union force operating in Darfur.

"The foreign minister of Sudan [Lam Akol] said at the Addis conference that the Sudanese government accepts in principle the second step, or this package of heavy support, which they had not done until that time," he said. "So I saw that as a step forward in and of itself. "

That heavy support includes, among other things, money, logistics and telecommunications help from the United Nations for the badly overstretched and underfunded African Union mission in Darfur.

Natsios says another important element to come out of the Addis talks was the idea that a political process must be in place before an international peacekeeping operation could make any difference.

He said the existing Darfur Peace Agreement, or DPA, signed by Khartoum and one of several rebel groups is a good basis for further talks.

"We should start with the DPA and add protocols onto it on the remaining issues that have not been resolved," noted Andrew Natsios. "Such as compensation for individual people who are in the camps, whose livestock has been looted, whose homes have been destroyed, whose farm equipment is gone, who could not go back to their villages without some kind of package of support."

Natsios says there are still issues that need the approval of the Sudanese government, including the number of extra UN troops that might be deployed under a UN/AU hybrid force as well as who would command the proposed force.

But he warned the international community is on a very tight deadline and he urged Khartoum to make decisions quickly. He said by January 1, there will be a new a UN secretary general, a new Congress will take over in Washington and the mandate of the African Union mission in Darfur expires.

He said by then "either we see a change or go to plan B." While he did not elaborate on what plan B means, he said it is a "different approach" from a negotiated deployment of peacekeepers.