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US Official: Fighting in Western Sudan Threatens Peace Deal in South - 2004-01-10

There is growing concern in Washington that fighting in Sudan's western Darfur region may complicate the final drive for an agreement ending that country's north-south civil war. A senior State Department official says the United States is pressing the Khartoum government to find a political solution to the Darfur conflict.

The Bush administration has been heavily involved in efforts to end the 20-year-old Sudanese war, and has offered to bring the leaders of the two sides in the negotiations to a White House event to celebrate an eventual agreement.

But a senior State Department officials said Friday that if the fighting in western Sudan cannot be ended peacefully, and soon, it will tarnish a north-south peace accord and call into question the durability of any commitments included in it.

The Darfur fighting, which erupted in the semi-desert region last February, pits local rebels against Sudanese government troops and allied militiamen.

The conflict has reportedly killed as many as 3,000 civilians and driven some 600,000 from their homes including nearly 100,000 refugees who have fled into neighboring Chad.

The senior official, who spoke to reporters on condition he not be named, said Secretary of State Powell has raised Darfur in recent telephone talks with the chief negotiators in the north-south peace talks saying it calls into question their promises to end the broader civil war.

He said both the Khartoum government and the southern rebel movement, the SPLA, have contributed to the local crisis. He said the SPLA initially trained the Darfur rebels, while faulting the government for pursuing a military, rather than a political, solution to the conflict.

He also said the principles in the nearly-completed north-south peace accord which include wealth sharing and a period of autonomy for the south, are "easily transferable" to Darfur.

Secretary of State Powell visited the Sudan peace talks in Kenya in October and secured a pledge from the parties at the time to try to complete a peace accord by the end of 2003.

They failed to reach that target, but did announce an agreement on sharing the country's oil wealth earlier this week.

The senior official said the remaining issues, including power-sharing and the status of three disputed regions in central Sudan, are difficult. But he said U.S. officials were none-the-less still hopeful the process can be completed before President Bush's State of the Union address to Congress January 20.