Sudan's president said he accepts a U.N. package to help end escalating violence in Darfur and is ready to discuss a cease-fire, according to a letter circulated Tuesday.

President Omar al-Bashir said in the letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan that Sudan is ready to immediately implement two recent agreements endorsing a three-step U.N. plan to strengthen the beleaguered 7,000-strong African Union force in the vast western region of the country.

Al-Bashir also dropped his opposition to a hybrid AU-U.N. force that would be deployed as the final step in the peace plan.

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However, U.N. Security Council diplomats cautioned that al-Bashir remains opposed to any large-scale deployment of U.N. troops and has backtracked on agreements regarding Darfur in the past. The letter also leaves unresolved the size and command of the hybrid force.

Al-Bashir rejects a Security Council resolution adopted in August that called for more than 20,000 U.N. peacekeepers to replace the AU force, which has been unable to stop the violence that has killed more than 200,000 people and left 2.5 million displaced in Darfur since February 2003.

The Sudanese president also previously opposed the deployment of U.N. troops as part of a hybrid force, claiming it would compromise Sudan's sovereignty.

In his letter to Annan, however, al-Bashir said the conclusions of a Nov. 16 meeting of key Sudanese and international diplomats in Ethiopia and a Nov. 30 AU summit in Nigeria, where the hybrid force was endorsed, "constitute a viable framework for peaceful settlement to the conflict in Darfur."

Al-Bashir said Sudan agrees that implementation of the first two phases of the U.N. support package for the AU troops in Darfur should start "as scheduled."

The first phase would provide the AU force with scores of military officers, U.N. police and other international staffers, as well as much-needed military equipment, according to a U.N. report last month. A second, larger package would include the deployment of several hundred U.N. military, police and civilian personnel, along with substantial aviation and logistical assets.

Al-Bashir said the size of the hybrid AU-U.N. force should be determined by both organizations, "taking into account all relevant factors and the situation on the ground as well as the requirements for it to effectively discharge its mandate."

Al-Bashir's letter came after several telephone conversations between the Sudanese president and Annan, and a letter from the secretary-general delivered by a personal envoy.

Annan said the Sudanese leader's support was essential if the U.N. is to fund and strengthen the AU force. He also said a cease-fire in Darfur is "imperative" because of the significant increase in violence in the region over the last few weeks, including an upsurge in attacks on civilians by militias.

Fighting in Darfur began nearly four years ago when rebels from black African tribes took up arms against Sudan's Arab-dominated government. The government is accused of unleashing Arab tribal militia known as the janjaweed against civilians in a campaign of murder, rape and arson — a charge the government denies.

Al-Bashir said peace talks aimed at a political settlement should be expedited, blaming rebels who have not signed the peace agreement for continued attempts to undermine the accord and overthrow the Sudanese government.

He told Annan that the next step should be a Security Council resolution endorsing the agreements reached at the November meetings in Ethiopia and Nigeria "and authorizing immediate financial support for peacekeeping in Darfur."

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