Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir said Friday that his country was ready to open peace talks next month with a cease-fire with Darfur rebels at his high-profile visit to Italy that included an audience with Pope Benedict XVI.
It was the first time al-Bashir had called for a cease-fire since the announcement last week of the U.N.-backed talks in Tripoli, Libya set to start Oct. 27. A top rebel leader has demanded that hostilities end before negotiations can begin.
"We have announced we are willing (to put in place) a cease-fire with the start of the negotiations to create a positive climate," al-Bashir said at a news conference following talks with Italian Premier Romano Prodi.
"We hope that the negotiations in Tripoli will be the last ones and that they will bring a final peace," al-Bashir said, speaking through a translator.
Khartoum has regularly agreed to cease-fires but all have been quickly breached by the parties involved in the conflict.
Abdel Wahid Elnur, who leads a major faction of the Sudan Liberation Movement rebels, has said negotiations should not start until a cease-fire is in place and a planned U.N.-African Union joint peacekeeping force is on the ground. U.N. officials have said troops could start to deploy in October for the 26,000-strong joint peacekeeping force.
Al-Bashir said he had asked Prodi to push those European countries hosting rebel leaders to pressure them to take part in the talks, mentioning particularly Elnur, who is based in Paris.
Prodi praised al-Bashir's offer of a cease-fire saying that "this is an important signal, a strong signal that I welcomed with favor."
Al-Bashir's offer came just four days after a major attack launched by his forces against units of the Justice and Equality rebel group in northern Darfur in which more than a dozen people died.
More than 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million have been uprooted since ethnic African rebels in Darfur took up arms against the Arab-dominated Sudanese government in 2003.
Sudan's government is accused of retaliating by unleashing a militia of Arab nomads known as the janjaweed, a charge Khartoum denies.
Al-Bashir, who came to power in 1989 in a military and Islamic coup, was in Italy on a rare, high-profile visit to Western Europe that raised concern from human rights advocates and some politicians.
The Vatican said that Benedict and al-Bashir, aided by interpreters, spoke for 25 minutes at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo in the Alban Hills southeast of Rome.
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi described the atmosphere during talks as "very respectful."
"One could see there was a great commitment by Sudan for this meeting, as demonstrated by such a high-level delegation with evident care to showing great attention and respect for the Vatican," Lombardi told reporters.
He said the Holy See would issue a statement later about the talks.
Pope Benedict has said the Holy See is willing to do everything possible to end what he has described as "horror" in Darfur. A spokesman for the Sudanese president had said before the meeting that al-Bashir wanted to improve dialogue between Christians and Muslims and explain what he was doing to "alleviate the suffering of people in southern Sudan and Darfur."
There was concern among human rights groups about what the visit would achieve.
"The human rights situation in Sudan continues to be one of the most pressing humanitarian crises in the world today, and one to which the international community has failed for far too long to provide an effective response," Amnesty International said in a statement from its European Union office.
"Against this background, Amnesty International finds it remarkable that the Italian government has decided to receive" al-Bashir.
But actor and Darfur activist George Clooney said Thursday that increased international contacts with al-Bashir could ease the plight of Darfur's people.
"The policy of not talking to them because they're unsavory hasn't been very effective," Clooney said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "So my hope is that having a conversation with this man can somehow further movement toward getting these people back into their homes, their villages."
The choice of the city of Helsinki is not incidental as the capital of Finland had hosted US-Soviet negotiations on the limitation of nuclear stockpiles in 1969