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US Senator Kerry Visits Sudan's Darfur Region

John Kerry, who chairs the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee was expected to meet with regional officials, representatives of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Darfur, and to visit a camp for internally displaced people.

Kerry arrived in Sudan on Wednesday. On Thursday, he met with senior Sudanese officials in Khartoum, including second vice president Ali Osman Taha, and presidential advisor Nafi Ali Nafi.

After the meetings, Kerry said the Sudanese government had agreed to allow an increase in the presence of international aid operations in Darfur. The government expelled 13 international aid organizations from the region last month after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir on charges of war crimes.

Kerry did not say, however, that the expelled groups, which include the most prominent NGOs that had been operating in Darfur, among them Doctors Without Borders and Oxfam, would themselves be allowed back in.

Sudanese officials have said the decision to remove those groups is final. Kerry stressed that a partial return of international aid agencies is not enough. But he also suggested that political negotiations are the top priority.

"But there's also the two very much larger issues of the long term, which is the peace of Darfur itself, and of course the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and all that it entails," said Kerry.

The 2005 Comprehensive Peace agreement, negotiated with American backing, put an end to the two-decade North-South conflict. The agreement created a semi-autonomous southern government, a power-sharing national government, and called for national elections this year and a referendum on southern secession in 2011. Progress on the deal has fallen behind schedule, and elections were recently delayed until 2010. Many observers doubt whether the national government will allow a free vote, or tolerate secession by the south.

"From elections to the referendum to various very specific obligations regarding unresolved issues - borders, wealth-sharing, and other such things. Personally, I'm convinced that the Comprehensive Peace Agreement is the foundation on which to build the resolution of a lot of issues here in Sudan," Kerry said.

Many Sudanese officials have expressed hope that Kerry's visit might facilitate a return to normalized relations between the two countries, including the removal of Sudan from the Unites States' list of state sponsors of terrorism, and the removal of economic sanctions on the regime.

Negotiations on normalization between the Bush administration and Khartoum fell apart last year. But last week President Bashir said that U.S. President Barack Obama was showing 'positive signs' toward the Muslim World. Kerry's visit has received considerable attention from Sudanese state media.

Kerry, as well as the Obama administration's new Sudan envoy Scott Gration, who visited the country last week, have taken a more conciliatory tone compared with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's criticism last month of the decision to expel the aid agencies.

But Kerry suggested that normalization would require significant shifts in Sudanese policy, and such a move does not appear likely in the near term. At a forum in Khartoum this week on American policy in Sudan, Sudanese politicians and analysts appeared skeptical that the new administration will bring any serious change in relations between the countries.