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US Official: Sudanese Govt., Southern Rebels Close to Final Peace Agreement

The U.S. special envoy to Sudan, John Danforth, says the United States remains optimistic that an overall agreement ending the civil war in southern Sudan can be clinched in the coming days. Mr. Danforth's remarks follow reports that the government in Khartoum is refusing to negotiate a key issue that has been a major obstacle to peace. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu reports from Naivasha, Kenya, where the American envoy has been meeting with participants of the talks for the past two days.

Speaking Friday at peace talks hosted by Kenya, former U.S. Senator Danforth described the recently signed wealth-sharing accord between the Sudanese government and the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army as a "major sign of progress" toward ending the two-decade long civil war. Earlier this month, the warring sides signed an agreement to share oil revenues, removing one major obstacle to peace. But they have yet to agree on how to share power and territory in three disputed areas on the border that separates northern and southern Sudan.

On Tuesday, Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir raised a potential obstacle to a comprehensive peace agreement, declaring that the Kenyan-sponsored talks had no authority to negotiate the status of the three areas.

Nevertheless, President Bush's special envoy says he believes there is little chance that anything could derail the marathon peace process at this point.

"The fact of the matter is that there are only two remaining issues to be resolved and they seem to be in reach and I am absolutely convinced that both sides want to achieve a positive result and want to reach a peace agreement for Sudan," he said.

The United States has played a pivotal role in the peace process that began nearly two years ago.

Among other reasons, the Bush administration has an interest in making sure that Sudan is not a haven for the al-Qaida terrorist network or similar organizations. In the 1990s, Sudan provided a refuge to al-Qaida leader, Osama bin Laden.

The United States has said that if the Sudanese government signs a peace accord, it would consider lifting American sanctions and dropping Sudan from Washington's list of states it regards as sponsors of terrorism.

Mr. Danforth stressed that Washington is committed to securing peace in Sudan. "As far as the United States is concerned we are here to stay," he said. "Our interest in Sudan is sustained, it's been going on for a period of time and we are going to be involved as best we can in a supportive role not only until there is a peace agreement but thereafter as well."

Last October, Secretary of State Colin Powell visited the talks in Naivasha in a bid to speed up progress. At that time, the warring sides promised Mr. Powell they would sign a peace accord by the end of 2003. But they failed to meet their self-imposed deadline.