Sudan's Bashir meets Pope, will observe ceasefire

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ROME, Sep 14 (Reuters) Pope Benedict stressed respect for human rights in the first visit to the Vatican by Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who promised to observe a ceasefire in Darfur after peace talks start next month.

The four-year conflict in the western Sudan region and religious freedom in the nation dominated talks between the Sudanese leader and the Pope, said the Vatican, which in the past has attacked Khartoum's human rights record.

The Pope welcomed the October 27 peace talks in Libya to resolve a crisis that foreign experts estimate has killed 200,000 people in more than four years and driven 2.5 million people from their homes.

Khartoum disputes the figures.

Bashir earlier met Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, who has been criticised by European parliamentarians and Italian politicians for hosting the Sudanese leader during his rare trip to Europe.

Prodi said he used the meeting to underline the ''strong concerns'' of the international community over the crisis, while Bashir urged Europe to pressure rebel leaders to attend the peace talks with Khartoum next month.

He promised his government would observe a ceasefire once the talks start, saying he hoped they would be the last of their kind and finally bring peace. He also maintained the situation in Darfur had improved and called for an easing of sanctions.

''We have given our government's willingness for a ceasefire from the start of the peace talks,'' he said through a translator at a news conference with Prodi, who called it a strong and important signal for peace.

A ceasefire was agreed in April 2004 but has been violated frequently, with fighting blamed on government troops, rebels and Janjaweed militias. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has urged all parties to cease fire immediately.

NO RED CARPET Sudan's predominantly Arab and Muslim government also a signed a peace deal with the mainly Christian and animist south in 2005, ending a more than two-decade conflict between the country's northern and southern regions.

The southern region has resisted attempts by the north to impose Islamic law on non-Muslims and the Vatican once formally protested at the treatment of Christians in the country. Khartoum denies repression of the mainly Catholic Christian population.

This is not Bashir's first meeting with a pontiff. Pope Benedict's predecessor in 1993 used unusually direct language on human rights with the Sudanese leader, who came to power in an Islamist-backed coup in 1989.

Bashir's visit has also stirred opposition within Italy from local human rights groups and some politicians, one of whom said he should be met with a firm hand rather than a red carpet.

A group of European parliamentarians led by Britain's Glenys Kinnock also said it was surprised and concerned that Prodi would welcome a man ''primarily responsible for the slaughter in Darfur''.

Prodi's government -- which has agreed to send aid and helicopters, train troops and give financial support to peacekeeping operations in the region -- said the visit was useful in underlining the world's concerns on Darfur.

Bashir appeared visibly uncomfortable when asked why his government was not disarming the Janjaweed militias. Khartoum maintains they are outlaws and denies supporting them.

''One should ask who started military operations. We say rebels clearly started military operations,'' he said, smiling nervously and looking away. ''They forced the government to retaliate to defend itself.'' Reuters RAR DB2045

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