Sun, Sep 16, 2007 - Page 1 News List

Sudanese president discusses Darfur with pope, Prodi

AP , ROME

In a rare, high-profile visit to the West, the Sudanese president on Friday met the pope and the Italian prime minister, and offered to declare a ceasefire with Darfur rebels to coincide with the start of UN-backed peace talks next month.

After a meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and President Omar al-Bashir, the Vatican expressed hope that the talks in Libya would succeed and put an end to the suffering in Darfur.

Al-Bashir told reporters after his meeting with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi that he was offering a ceasefire linked to the start of talks on Oct. 27 in Libya to "create a positive climate."

"We hope that the negotiations in Tripoli will be the last ones and that they will bring definitive peace," al-Bashir said.

A top rebel leader, Abdulwahid Elnur, of the Sudan Liberation Movement, has said negotiations should not start before a ceasefire and before the arrival of a UN-African Union peacekeeping force. UN officials have said troops could start deploying next month.

In a telephone call from Paris on Friday, Elnur again rejected the Libya talks, expressing skepticism about al-Bashir's truce offer.

"How many ceasefires is al-Bashir going to offer?" Elnur said, listing nearly a dozen he said Sudan's forces violated.

But observers say some were also breached by Darfur rebels.

"No one on earth will make me go" to Libya, Elnur said, adding his movement wanted to see the UN deployed in Darfur and the janjaweed disarmed before agreeing to negotiations.

Asked at a late-night news conference about the rebels' refusal to participate in the peace talks, al-Bashir replied, "We think there are a number of factions not ready to obtain peace."

"They are enjoying their stay in these luxurious hotels" in Europe, the president said, adding that he had asked both the pope and Prodi to put pressure on France to make the rebel leaders join in the talks.

Al-Bashir said he asked Prodi to encourage European countries hosting rebel leaders to pressure them to take part in the talks.

Prodi welcomed al-Bashir's offer of a ceasefire as an "important signal."

While the pope in the past has denounced the humanitarian disaster in Darfur as a "horror," the Vatican chose an upbeat tone to describe Benedict's 25-minute talks with the Sudanese president in the papal summer palace in Castel Gandolfo outside Rome.

Discussions were focused on Darfur, the Vatican said.

"Very positive views were expressed concerning fresh peace negotiations," it said.

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