Darfur, Sudan peace on agenda as Bashir meets Mbeki

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CAPE TOWN, Nov 6 (Reuters) Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir met with South African President Thabo Mbeki today during a visit expected to address the Darfur crisis and implementation of a deal that ended Sudan's 20-year civil war.

Mbeki, who has mediated crises in a number of African nations, hopes to help ease tensions in Sudan where the government is under pressure to end violence in Darfur and prepare for the deployment early next year of a UN-African Union peacekeeping force.

Efforts to reach a political solution in Darfur suffered another setback last month after several rebel groups boycotted peace talks in Libya. The UN Darfur envoy has said he was hopeful they will join the negotiations.

Bashir's government has said the bloodshed in Darfur, which has lasted 4-1/2 years and, according to international groups, cost an estimated 200,000 lives, could not end unless all rebel groups come to the negotiating table.

Khartoum says only 9,000 people have died since rebels took up arms against the government in 2003 and accuses critics of exaggerating the crisis.

While much of the violence has been blamed on the Janjaweed, a predominantly Arab militia allied to the Sudanese government, Darfur faces new challenges as a result of tribal battles and splintering among the rebel groups.

Rebels recently have been blamed for attacks on African Union peacekeepers, complicating efforts to ease the conflict.

Sudan is familiar with prolonged conflicts.

A 2005 peace deal between its government and rebels largely based in the southern part of the country ended what had been Africa's longest civil war, which claimed 2 million lives and drove 4 million people from their homes.

But members of the former rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) pulled out of the northern government last month saying Khartoum has not implemented key parts of the agreement.

The two sides met today to seek a final deal to end the political crisis.

One issue cited was the presence of government soldiers in southern oil fields.

Yesterday, Bashir said during a visit to Burundi that northern government troops remaining in the semi-autonomous south would quit the region before the end of the year.

Bashir and Mbeki did not speak to the media before beginning talks in Cape Town.

But South Africa's department of foreign affairs said the issue would likely to be on the agenda during their talks.

REUTERS NC SK RAI2338

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