One more U.S. diplomat joins Darfur peace talks

The No. 2 U.S. diplomat joined Darfur peace talks Tuesday as mediators tried to get rebels and the Sudanese government to strike a deal before a midnight deadline. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick could be seen heading into a conference room with African Union mediators and delegates from the warring parties.

Monday night, U.S. President George W. Bush had called his Sudanese counterpart, the official Sudan News Agency reported Tuesday, underlining Washington 's growing preoccupation with one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. Bush and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir discussed "the question of Darfur and the importance of bringing peace," the agency reported.

The three-year conflict has led to the deaths of at least 180,000 people and the displacement of more than 2 million. African Union-mediated peace talks in Abuja , the Nigerian capital, have dragged on almost as long as the fighting. Government officials in Khartoum , the Nigerian capital, were taking the line Tuesday that there was nothing more for their side to do. The government has announced its acceptance of the draft peace agreement, but the rebels have so far rejected it.

AU mediator Salim said his team tried to strike a compromise on rebel demands for autonomy, creating a transitional authority for the region that would include rebel representatives and proposing that the people of Darfur vote by 2010 on whether to create a single geographical entity out of the three current Darfur states. A unified Darfur would presumably have more political weight, and the rebels had demanded one be created by presidential decree.

The rebels had also demanded a third vice president, from Darfur , be added to the national government. The compromise draft called for the president to include a Darfur official, initially nominated by the rebels, among his top advisers. Salim said the expert would have "all the attributes of a vice president, except the name," and noted Sudan 's constitution, drafted under the treaty that ended the north-south war, permitted only two vice presidents, reports the AP.

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