The United States Thursday urged negotiators from Sudan's government and southern rebel movement to complete agreements ending the country's long-running north-south conflict by their New Year's Eve target date. Secretary of State Colin Powell is taking a personal hand in the last-minute diplomacy.

U.S. officials have had their share of frustration over the north-south peace talks, given that the parties had promised Secretary Powell they would complete negotiations by the end of 2003.

But optimism here is rising again, amid reports from Kenyan mediators that a permanent cease-fire and blueprint for resolving remaining problem issues could be signed on Friday, as the parties promised the U.N. Security Council in November.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said Mr. Powell had telephoned Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Taha and southern rebel leader John Garang late Wednesday.

He said Mr. Powell urged them to clear the final hurdles to a comprehensive peace, and that both said they would make very intensive efforts to do that.

Mr. Boucher said the United States would welcome a peace deal as a "tremendous and historic achievement," which he said would have positive implications for settling the conflict in Sudan's western Darfur region, which has lately overshadowed north-south peace efforts.

"We have felt, and I think the Sudanese parties have felt, that resolving the north-south issues, resolving some of the governmental issues, the power-sharing issues involved in that agreement, can only help resolve the Darfur issues," he said.  "And therefore, we think it is very important to proceed with the north-south agreement, and not to forget about Darfur but rather to use that to contribute further to resolving the terrible problems being faced by the people in Darfur."

The north-south civil war, which dates to the 1980s, has pitted Sudan's Islamic government against rebels of the SPLM, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, which is seeking greater autonomy for the mainly Christian and animist south.

U.S. and United Nations officials hope north-south power and wealth-sharing agreements can be a model for settling regional grievances in Darfur, where local rebels took up arms against the Khartoum authorities in early 2003.