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US Remains Hopeful for Sudanese Peace Agreement - 2003-12-31

The United States Wednesday pledged to keep working for a peace agreement in Sudan after the parties to the country's two-decade civil war failed to reach their self-imposed goal of a deal by year's end.

The quest for a Sudanese peace accord has been a priority for the Bush administration. Secretary of State Colin Powell secured the pledge by the parties to try to conclude peace talks by year's end when he visited the negotiators in Kenya in October.

At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli acknowledged that the deadline was passing but said U.S. officials remain hopeful the Khartoum government and southern rebels can successfully conclude the talks soon.

"That deadline may slip, probably will slip, but the important point I think to make is that they are very close," he said. "There are really just some small issues dividing them. We think that there is a historic opportunity here, that the moment should be seized. We are working with both of them to resolve these few remaining issues that are outstanding."

On Tuesday Secretary Powell telephoned Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in Khartoum and the two delegation chiefs in Kenya - Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Taha and southern rebel leader John Garang to try to encourage a speedy end to negotiations.

Kenyan mediators have reported progress on the two remaining areas of dispute, a north-south wealth-sharing formula and a resolution of the status of three disputed regions of the country.

President al-Bashir was quoted Tuesday as saying he expected a final deal to be reached next week.

The Sudanese conflict, pitting forces of the Islamic government in Khartoum against Christian and animist rebels in the south, began in 1983 and is Africa's longest-running civil war.

The sides agreed in 2002 on a six-year period of autonomy for the south to be followed by a referendum on the region's political future.

The conflict has left as many as two million people dead, mainly from war-related famine, and driven millions more from their homes.