President Obama's special envoy to Sudan is expressing confidence that Darfur rebel groups can unite to send a single message in talks with the Khartoum government. VOA correspondent Peter Heinlein spoke to the envoy in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, where he is meeting rebel leaders.

U.S. special envoy Scott Gration held talks with the heads of several competing Darfur rebel groups at his makeshift headquarters in an Addis Ababa hotel.  Participants included members of Abdelwahid Nur's Sudanese Liberation Army, which has refused to participate in previous unity talks.

Gration told VOA he is encouraged by the apparent willingness of rival factions to put aside differences that doomed previous efforts to forge a unified front in talks with Khartoum on ending Darfur's six year war.

"There's more unity than I expected, and what I've seen is, in a very short time they've been able to put together a road map that is based on common themes and a common approach, so I believe that the big differences are behind us, and now we're talking about how do we implement, how do we make it happen," he said.

Gration, a former U.S. Air Force general, has upset some Darfur activist groups with his emphasis on engaging rather than isolating the Khartoum government. He has advocated loosening some sanctions to allow delivery of development aid to southern Sudan before the scheduled 2011 referendum on independence. He has also said he sees no reason to justify keeping Sudan on the U.S. terrorism list.

He says his current visit to the region, which included a surprise stop in Khartoum, is aimed at achieving four objectives.

"In Darfur we're trying to ensure that people in the short term have humanitarian assistance they need to get through this rainy season. In addition, security is a big issue for us, so we're looking at ways to support the United Nations effort, ways we can reduce the tensions between Chad and Sudan, and then this rebel unification is a big deal," he explained. "We need to ensure that the rebels come together in a unified way so we don't have spoilers when this is all done, so we don't have groups that arm themselves and try to disrupt what we are able to accomplish, and then we want to make sure there is a process so the people of Darfur can express their will and can be part of a democratic transformation that allows them to get back their rights and to get back their voice and to make a difference in their own future," he said.

Gration describes his role as a facilitator in helping the Darfur rebels patch up their differences, and creating an environment where lasting unity is possible. He tells VOA he is hopeful the Addis Ababa meetings might produce a common leadership of the rebel movement.

"But what we're looking for is not the leader that the United States or Egypt or Libya wants, we're looking for a leader the Darfuri people want, somebody they can unify behind, who can be an articulate spokesman for their issues, so that when they get into the negotiation session with the government of Khartoum, they can articulate their positions and reach an agreement that will give them a lasting peace in Darfur," he said.

Gration earlier this week went to southern Sudan, for the signing of an agreement aimed at bolstering the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended a 22-year north-south civil war.

The separate conflict in Darfur erupted in 2003, when rebels started a full-scale insurgency, demanding a greater share of the country's oil wealth and a larger voice in the national government.

The United Nations estimates 300,000 people died in the early years of the Darfur war, and that the death toll continues to rise at a rate of about 150 a month. The government says those figures are exaggerated, and puts the total death toll at about 10,000.