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Powell:  US to Contact Sudan Leaders on Fighting in Country's Western Region - 2004-03-04

Secretary of State Colin Powell told Congressmen Wednesday he expects to contact senior Sudanese leaders shortly over what he says is a "catastrophe" unfolding in that country's western Darfur region. Fighting in Darfur is overshadowing negotiations to settle Sudan's long-running north-south civil war, which Mr. Powell says are nearly complete.

Mr. Powell's remarks were the second expression of U.S. concern in as many days about Darfur, where warfare, pitting Sudanese forces and militia allies against local rebels, has uprooted hundreds of thousands of people, sending many of them streaming as refugees into neighboring Chad.

Appearing before the House Appropriations Committee, Mr. Powell said he conferred on Darfur earlier Wednesday with acting Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Charles Snyder, who is just back from a mission to the area.

While giving members an optimistic report on Sudan's north-south peace talks, he said Darfur is another matter entirely. "The background that one has to consider is what's happening in Darfur, which is not good," he said. "And we are in touch with our international partners to see if we can not bring that situation under control. And I'll probably be talking to Sudanese authorities within the next 24 hours about the catastrophe that's unfolding in Darfur."

On Tuesday, the State Department expressed "grave concern" about the situation in Darfur and urged the parties to agree to a humanitarian cease-fire to allow aid workers and supplies to reach the remote area.

Mr. Powell said the Kenyan-sponsored negotiations on ending Sudan's two-decade-old north-south civil war are very close to completion, with the parties basically hung up on one remaining issue.

He said that is the status of the oil-rich Abyei region in central Sudan, which under partial control of both the Khartoum government and southern rebels.

The parties to the talks missed a self-imposed deadline of last December 31st to conclude an agreement, and Mr. Powell told committee members it should be clear by the end of this month whether the talks can be brought to a successful conclusion.

He said U.S. diplomats in Kenya will be working hard in the coming days to help facilitate a deal, and said the United States has some ideas of its own that it is prepared to introduce "at the appropriate moment" to try to break the deadlock over Abyei.