The African Union Panel on Darfur, led by Thabo Mbeki, has briefed the U.N. Security Council on its work to bring about peace and reconciliation in Sudan.  Mr. Mbeki said securing peace in Darfur will be essential to carrying out credible elections next year.

Former South African president Thabo Mbeki told the U.N. Security Council that during his visit last week to Sudan, he found broad support for the AU High Level Implementation Panel's recommendations to guide the country through national elections and a permanent end to violence in Darfur.

He says a comprehensive settlement should build on sharing power and wealth, national reconciliation and national unity in Sudan.

"Just over a week ago we visited Sudan, and the AUHIP had occasion to meet, upon others, a broad spectrum of the leaders of Darfur civil society," he said. "These leaders emphasize exactly this point - to use their words - the situation in Darfur is ripe to effectively accelerate the peace process."

Also on the AU panel's agenda: guiding Sudan though national elections in April of 2010 - the country's first democratic vote in 24 years.  It is to be followed nine months later by a referendum on southern succession.

The success of either of these objectives rests heavily on the inclusion of the people of Darfur.

"We thought it was important that Darfur negotiations should be concluded before the impending general elections," Mr. Mbeki said.  "We attach a great deal of importance to this because we are concerned that should the people of Darfur feel excluded in any way from both the elections and concentration of matters relating to the referendum, this would serve to underline their marginalization and disempowerment which were a central cause of the armed uprising which started in 2003."

The AU panel has also recommended the creation of a special court made up of local and international judges to try those accused of atrocities in Darfur, where the United Nations says as many 300,000 people have died.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has been indicted by war crimes by the International Criminal Court.  The Sudanese government has said it rejects the court.

Former rebel groups in Darfur have expressed support for the hybrid courts, but last week, the Sudanese government expressed reservations about the proposal because of what it called a "lack of clarity" over the makeup of the court.