The United States Thursday welcomed the prospect of Nigerian-hosted peace talks later this month between the parties to the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region. It also angrily rejected a charge that Western interest in the Darfur crisis is aimed at seizing Sudanese oil resources.

The United States has long said that a political settlement of the Darfur conflict is the ultimate key to ending the humanitarian crisis in the region.

It is warmly welcoming an invitation from Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo to host Sudanese officials and Darfur rebel leaders for talks in Abuja August 23 aimed at ending the fighting.

An April 8 cease-fire accord between the rebels and the Khartoum government, reached in Chad, has been widely ignored, and subsequent talks in the Chadian capital, Ndjamena, on the political issues underlying the Darfur crisis came to nothing.

At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli said the Nigerian overture, which was quickly accepted by the two Darfur rebel groups, is a "very important and welcome development."

He said there is no reason why Sudan's government cannot pursue a political solution in Darfur even as it fulfills terms of the U.N. Security Council resolution giving it 30 days to crack down on Arab militias accused of war crimes against Darfur's black African population.

"You have to address the roots of the conflict and you have to bring the parties together," he said. "At the same time, the government of Sudan has to take steps to protect its people, and it's not doing that. It can do both. It can take steps to protect its people, and it can enter negotiations to resolve long-standing political differences."

The July 30 Security Council resolution threatened Sudan with unspecified measures if it failed to rein-in the government-backed "Janjaweed" militiamen, who have used scorched-earth tactics against the Darfur rebels and their perceived supporters since the conflict began in early 2003.

In comments in Khartoum Thursday, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir said that the real motive of Western nations involved in Darfur diplomacy is to destabilize Sudan to secure oil and gold resources. The charge drew a quick rejoinder from State Department spokesman Ereli.

"Oil and gold is not the issue here," he stated. "The issue is saving people from disease, starvation, rape and murder. That's what's at stake here. That's why we're involved in Darfur. That's why the international community I think is speaking so clearly and consistently on the need for the government of Sudan to take real, visible, tangible action."

The United Nations says Darfur has become the world's worst humanitarian crisis, and that as many as 50,000 people have been killed by the fighting and war-related disease and starvation. More than one million people have been driven from their homes and into refugee camps in Darfur and neighboring Chad.