U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in Darfur on Wednesday that negotiators were close to setting new peace talks between the government and rebels, an essential step toward ending civilian bloodshed in the devastated region of Sudan.

He said the planned deployment of a 26,000-strong peacekeeping force comprised of African Union and U.N. troops was now on a "good track" and "it is crucially important that a political negotiation process start now."

Ban said "we are coming close to agreeing on the venue and date" for key rebel groups to return to the negotiating table with the Sudanese government.

"I'm really going to step up this political negotiation process," he said.

Ban, in Darfur for a firsthand look at the living conditions of some of the 2.5 million people in refugee camps, urged the world to be more sympathetic to the millions whose lives have been uprooted.

He met with officials from the current, strictly AU mission, who told him the beleaguered force now had fewer then 6,000 peacekeepers deployed in this region nearly the size of France — down from its authorized strength of 7,000.

On the third day of a weeklong trip to Sudan, Chad and Libya, Ban also met North Darfur governor Mohamed Kebir at the official's tightly controlled compound. In an apparently orchestrated demonstration there, a crowd chanted pro-government slogans and gave Ban a letter saying Darfur refugees want U.N. help to return to their original villages, a new government policy.

The Sudanese government has appeared increasingly bent on reducing the population in the refugee camps, largely composed of ethnic African farmers chased from their homes by militias of nomad Arabs known as the janjaweed.

Later, when Ban tried to meet with delegates from the camps, the demonstrators returned, this time a dozen people, mostly women, who slipped into the compound, demanded to meet the secretary-general, and chanted slogans, causing the meeting's cancellation.

"We don't care for U.N.! This is our country!" they shouted in Arabic. "You want to destroy us."

Ban later met with representatives chosen by the inhabitants of the three camps in the area, said U.N. associate spokesman Yves Sorokobi.

The Arab-dominated central government denies accusations it uses the janjaweed as a counterinsurgency tool to fight the mostly ethnic African rebels in Darfur. But the International Criminal Court in The Hague has charged a Cabinet minister and an alleged janjaweed chief with 51 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur, where 200,000 people have died since violence began in 2003.

Since taking the reins of the United Nations in January, Ban has made resolving the crisis in Darfur one of his top priorities.

Sudan had for months resisted a push for U.N. peacekeepers to replace the fledging AU force now in the region, but Ban said Khartoum has now pledged full support to the July 31 Security Council resolution that plans for 26,000 U.N. and AU peacekeepers to deploy jointly in Darfur.

The secretary-general also stressed the link between a political solution in Darfur and implementation of a 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement ending 21 years of a separate civil war between Sudan's Muslim government in the north and mainly Christian and animist rebels in the south.

"I came to realize much more than I thought in New York, the importance and urgency of smooth implementation of Comprehensive Peace Agreement," Ban said.