Darfur integral to better US-Sudan ties, says Kerry

US Senator John Kerry says Sudan's northern government will win quick US incentives if an independence referendum in the south goes smoothly, but further improvement of ties will depend on progress toward peace in the separate conflict in Darfur.

Kerry, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, was in Sudan yesterday ahead of the critical referendum on independence for the country's south. The vote is a key element of a 2005 peace agreement that ended the 21-year civil war between the Arab-dominated north and the mainly Christian, animist south. Some 2 million people were killed in the conflict.

Relations between Sudan and the US have soured since President Omar al-Bashir's government came to power in 1989. The US imposed economic, trade and financial sanctions against Sudan in 1997, and added new ones in 2007 because of the Darfur conflict. President Barack Obama renewed the economic sanctions in a letter to Congress in November, a requirement by law every year.

Kerry said he has seen a positive shift in the Khartoum government's approach toward the 9 January referendum, which is expected to see the oil-rich south split off from the north into an independent country.

"They deserve credit for making the decision to follow through and deliver on the (peace agreement)," Kerry said. "I think there has been a constructive change there and we need to follow from there."

If the referendum goes smoothly and the north accepts the results, he said, Obama is prepared to "immediately" initiate the process to remove Sudan from the list of states sponsoring terrorism, which Khartoum has been on since 1993. Kerry called the move a confidence-building measure.

But progress toward a peace deal in Darfur would be critical to lifting sanctions on the Khartoum government, said Kerry, who is on his fourth visit to Sudan.

"Darfur remains a very critical issue and center of our focus and I went there today to purposely link the future of Sudan to our ability to resolve what happens in Darfur," he said.

Al-Bashir accused the US of breaking past promises to remove Sudan from the list of states sponsoring terrorism.

"We don't pay very much attention to American promises," he told al-Jazeera TV yesterday evening.

Kerry visited Shangil Tobyai, a village in northern Darfur yesterday, where thousands of newly displaced fled to from recently renewed violence. He said he hoped the referendum process and the international focus on Sudan would give impetus to a new push toward making peace in Darfur.

Darfur has been in turmoil since 2003, when ethnic African rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated government. UN officials say up to 300,000 people have died and 2.7 million have been forced from their homes because of the conflict.

On a previous trip to Sudan in November, Kerry shared with the Khartoum government a letter from Obama laying out the way forward for a gradual improvement of relations with Washington. He revealed details publicly from the letter for the first time yesterday.

"This is an integrated process and as the president has laid out, Darfur is one of the elements of consideration but the (peace) agreements are very critical," he said. The other elements include border disputes and citizenship rights as well as oil revenue sharing, he said.

The southern peace deal expires in July this year, and Kerry said it was important these matters be resolved by then.

"But you can move on one thing or another thing before you have everything completed," he said. "There has to be a show of good faith on both sides. That requires us to do something when it is appropriate and it requires them to continue to do things."

Fighting has subsided in much of Darfur, but there have been recent clashes between government troops and rebel forces. The uptick in violence comes as peace negotiations between rebel groups and the government in the tiny Gulf emirate of Qatar have stalled.

Kerry commended the Qataris on their role in Darfur peacemaking, but said he thinks the talks need to move to a more visible, larger stage. He said rebel groups should not boycott the talks.

"We are looking for a serious process here and we are going do everything we can in order to advance this process," he said.