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Sudan President, Rebel Leader Discuss Upcoming Peace Talks - 2003-04-02

Sudanese President Omar al Bashir Wednesday held a rare meeting with rebel leader John Garang in the Kenyan capital. The two men expressed hope that they will find a solution to their 20-year-old conflict by June.

The meeting between the two long-time foes was arranged by Kenya's new president, Mwai Kibaki, who hosted both men at his official residence.

Kenya is mediating the Sudanese peace talks, which are due to resume on Sunday.

A communiqué released after the talks said President Bashir and Mr. Garang, the leader of the Sudan People's Liberation Army, were optimistic about bringing an end to Sudan's long-running war within the next three months. A Kenyan official briefed reporters after the meeting.

"The leaders committed themselves to be forthright on upcoming issues in the negotiations with a view to boosting the peace process," he said. "They jointly expressed hope on reaching a final peace agreement by the end of June this year."

President Kibaki urged the leaders to be flexible and to make concessions if they are to achieve this goal.

The road to peace has been fraught with difficulties because of deep-seated distrust between the Sudanese government and the rebels. The two sides regularly trade accusations of cease-fire violations.

Officials close to the talks said President Bashir and Mr. Garang promised to abide by the commitments they had made in previous rounds of talks, such as facilitating delivery of humanitarian aid. President Bashir also said he would honor an agreement he made last year to exempt southern Sudan from Sharia, the law of Islam. Northern Sudan, where the government is based, is mainly Muslim, while southern Sudan is mainly Christian and animist.

Officials in Nairobi say Wednesday's meeting should give added impetus to the peace talks when they reopen on Sunday. The main item on the agenda is security arrangements.

President Bashir and Mr. Garang do not meet often; the last time was in Uganda in July 2002.

The fighting between the Sudan government and Sudan People's Liberation Army dates back to 1983, when the rebels took up arms against the Sudanese government to fight for greater autonomy for the south. It is estimated that two million people have died in what is Africa's longest-running conflict, mainly through war-related famine.