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US Envoy Returning to Sudan for Darfur Talks

The United States' special envoy on Sudan, Andrew Natsios, leaves Friday on another mission to Khartoum aimed at overcoming obstacles to putting an expanded international peacekeeping force in Darfur. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discussed the issue Thursday with Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The trip will be Ambassador Natsios' second to the region since being named the Sudan envoy in September. It comes at a time of rising violence in Darfur, and continued resistance by authorities in Khartoum to the deployment of an upgraded peacekeeping force.

The U.N. Security Council voted at the end of August to replace the current 7,000-member African Union observer mission in Darfur with a full-fledged U.N. peacekeeping mission three times as large.

Sudan rejected the U.N. force as tantamount to a foreign invasion of its territory. But last month, under diplomatic pressure, it agreed in principle at an Addis Ababa conference chaired by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to accept a somewhat smaller, "hybrid" force made up of African Union and U.N. troops.

Officials here say Natsios will visit both Sudan and neighboring Chad, which has been plagued by spill-over violence from Darfur, to try to nail down Sudanese acceptance of the reconfigured force.

The U.S. envoy said late last month that the Bush administration, which has offered diplomatic incentives to Sudan if it helped end the Darfur violence, would move to an unspecified "Plan B" if Khartoum does not given final approval to an expanded force by January 1.

The issue is understood to have topped the agenda at a meeting Thursday between Secretary of State Rice and Secretary-General Amr Moussa of the Arab League, which has been trying to mediate the dispute.

The former Egyptian foreign minister told reporters after the luncheon meeting he is optimistic about progress, and that a deal on the Darfur force is already three-quarters complete:

"I believe we are moving," said Amr Moussa. "In Addis Ababa, the consensus was that we moved almost 75 per cent, more than 75 per per cent, on the paper or the offer of the Secretary-General Kofi Annan. In Abuja, there was an agreement too, on four basic points. So there is hope. Yes indeed. I believe that we can make progress, I mean definite progress on the Darfur question."

In New York Thursday, U.N. chief Annan issued a statement expressing deep concern about a worsening security situation in Darfur and its consequences for the wider region including Chad and the Central African Republic.

The secretary-general said violence in the last six weeks has killed several hundred people and displaced more than 80,000 more in Darfur and Chad.

He said there are reports of mass rapes and other gross violations of human rights and almost daily attacks in relief workers.

The Darfur conflict erupted in 2003 when local rebels took up arms against the Khartoum government, which responded by backing Arab "Janjaweed" militiamen in a scorched-earth campaign against the rebels and their perceived supporters.

A nominal Darfur peace accord reached in the Nigerian capital Abuja in May was rejected by some rebel factions and has had little effect on the violence.

U.N. officials estimate the conflict has claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people and displaced some two million more.