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Mediators push warring parties in Darfur closer to a peace deal

NAIROBI, Kenya—The warring parties in Sudan's Darfur region edged closer to a peace accord Thursday night under intense pressure from international mediators who said they believed that a deal to end the three-year conflict could be at hand.

But rebels and Sudanese officials declined to endorse a series of amendments put forward by U.S. and British envoys hours before a midnight negotiating deadline, and success wasn't certain. Talks in the Nigerian capital of Abuja were expected to last into Friday morning.

Sudan had backed a peace proposal over the weekend, but the rebels raised concerns over a number of provisions related to security, political representation and the sharing of national funds.

Mediators led by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, who's been at the talks since Tuesday, were trying to get agreement on two sticking points: the integration of rebel troops into national security forces and a timetable for Sudan to disarm the Arab militias, known as the janjaweed, that it's used since 2003 to fight the rebels.

The janjaweed have looted and torched countless villages in Darfur, an arid region the size of Texas, in a campaign that the Bush administration has called genocide. The violence has led to the deaths of more than 200,000 people and forced more than 2 million from their homes—a number that's increased daily as janjaweed attacks have spread into neighboring Chad.

Saif Haroun, a spokesman for the leading rebel faction, said the U.S. and British proposal provided for 7,000 to 8,000 rebel troops to be incorporated into Sudanese military and police forces—a plan he said he welcomed.

But late Thursday, Haroun said that rebels and Sudanese officials were still at odds over how and when to disarm the janjaweed. The government says Darfur is home to many Arab militia groups that weren't part of the conflict, and it doesn't want to be obligated to disarm all of them.

Earlier Thursday, sensing that an agreement could be reached soon, the European Union announced a $125 million grant for humanitarian aid and recovery in Darfur.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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