ROME, Sep 15 (Reuters) Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir said his government was willing to observe a ceasefire in Darfur from the start of peace talks with the rebels next month.
Bashir was speaking yesterday on a visit to Rome that has drawn criticism in Italy and abroad. The Sudanese leader also met Pope Benedict, who stressed respect for human rights and religious freedom in the vast African country.
Bashir said he hoped the October 27 peace talks in Libya would be the last of their kind and finally end a four-year conflict in the western Sudan region which foreign experts estimate has killed 200,000 people and driven another 2.5 million from their homes. Khartoum disputes the figures.
''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 Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, who called it a strong and important signal for peace.
Prodi, who has been criticised by European parliamentarians and Italian politicians for hosting Bashir during his rare trip to Europe, said he used the meeting to underline the ''strong concerns'' of the international community over the crisis.
The Sudanese president in turn urged Europe to pressure rebel leaders to attend the peace talks in Libya. He also maintained the situation in Darfur had improved and called for an easing of sanctions.
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 end the violence immediately and prepare for the deployment of 26,000 UN-African Union peacekeepers.
A potential obstacle to the Libya talks is Paris-based rebel leader Abdel Wahid Mohamed el-Nur, founder of the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army, who has set conditions for taking part. Rebel commanders urged him yesterday to attend.
Amid reports that Nur had dismissed Bashir's ceasefire offer, the Sudanese president told another news conference late on Friday some rebel factions were ''not ready to obtain peace''.
The rebels were increasingly fragmented, he added.
One Darfur rebel leader, Suleiman Jamous, was flown out of Sudan on Friday for medical treatment in Kenya after having been under effective house arrest at a UN hospital for 15 months.
Jamous, the humanitarian coordinator of the Sudan Liberation Movement, is respected in Darfur and considered a consensus builder who could help peace efforts and unify rebel groups.
''NO RED CARPET'' Sudan's predominantly Arab and Muslim government also signed a peace deal with the mainly Christian and animist south in 2005, ending more than two decades of 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 has formally protested at the treatment of Christians in Sudan. Khartoum denies repression of the mainly Catholic Christian population.
The visit yesterday was Bashir's first to the Vatican but not his first meeting with a pontiff. Pope Benedict's predecessor John Paul II in 1993 used unusually direct language on human rights to 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.
A group of European parliamentarians led by Britain's Glenys Kinnock 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 was 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. ''They forced the government to retaliate to defend itself.'' Reuters SZ VP0437