U.N. Peacekeepers Cleared to Enter Darfur

U.N. peacekeepers will be welcome in Darfur now that Sudan's government has reached a peace deal with one of the region's rebel groups, Khartoum spokesman said Saturday.

The invitation, which came a day after the peace accord in Abuja, Nigeria, followed repeated requests by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan for Sudan to allow envoys of the world body to replace thousands of African Union peacekeepers in Darfur.

"We heard the appeal of the U.N. secretary general," Bakri Mulah, secretary-general for external affairs in the Information Ministry, told The Associated Press. "Now there is no problem."

Annan on Friday welcomed the partial deal to end Darfur's ethnic bloodshed and urged rebel holdouts to seize the "historic moment" and sign the pact. There was no immediate U.N. reaction to Sudan's new willingness to accept peacekeepers.

Speaking at U.N. headquarters in New York, Annan urged ordinary people around the world to show the same generosity they did after the December 2004 tsunami to help the millions in Darfur who desperately need food and other humanitarian assistance. He said the United States government "has been very generous" he called on European donors and Gulf states to follow suit.

In Cairo, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa also welcomed the agreement and urged the holdout rebel groups to sign on to the deal.

Two rebel groups rejected the accord backed by the African Union, United States, Britain, the European Union and the Arab League. The groups skipped the Friday night signing ceremony, held at a Nigerian presidential villa.

Optimism over the deal was muted by the holdouts as well as a history of failure by both sides to honor agreements struck over two years of Darfur negotiations in the Nigerian capital.

Annan said the international community must immediately strengthen the 7,000-strong African Union force in Darfur with logistical support so it can start implementing the deal. He called on Sudan to grant visas to a U.N. assessment team so it can visit Darfur to start planning for a U.N. peacekeeping force to take over.

The American ambassador to the world body, John Bolton, also said U.N. peacekeepers were essential.

In dropping its opposition to a U.N. force, Khartoum cited new conditions created by the peace deal.

"There would be no problem to have the support of the United Nations and other partners, the U.S. and EU, to help in implementation," Mullah told AP.

Mulah said the agreement also would help in repairing relations between Sudan and Chad, strained over the flood of refugees from Darfur.

Beyond that, he told AP, he expected Minni Minnawi, head of the largest rebel group, Sudan Liberation Movement, to play an important role in the peace process as a member the Sudan's national unity government.

Mulah said the agreement was not closed to other rebel groups who had refused to sign.

"The other parties still have a chance to do so, but if they refuse then they will be treated just like the Janjajweed (the anti-rebel militia the government was accused of backing) or any other outlaw factions.

"This is not a government stand. It is that of the international community, the AU, the U.N. and the U.S. They will not tolerate any violation of the agreement," he warned.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, who helped spur peace talks, cautioned that the embattled East African region was far from safe even if the peace agreement were to take hold.

He also said that President Bush intervened during the difficult negotiations, sending a letter to Minnawi with assurances that Washington would support implementation of the peace accord, help monitoring compliance, hold accountable those who do not cooperate, and support a donors' conference for Darfur, Zoellick said in a telephone interview from Abuja with reporters in Washington.