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Sudan calls for cease-fire; rebels skeptical

KHARTOUM, Sudan -- Sudan's government has ordered troops in three areas of Darfur to observe an immediate cease-fire, state media reported yesterday, and an international observer said the government will ask rebels to do the same.

However, a rebel spokesman disputed the cease-fire report and threatened to end peace talks if government troops did not withdraw from Darfur, a western region the size of France. Also, an international observer said he could not verify that the government had stopped its attacks.

''I think it is a short period to evaluate to say they are complying or not," said Jean Baptiste, the African Union's senior political officer in Sudan.

Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail said troops have been instructed to implement the cease-fire decision made yesterday but also were urged to ''be vigilant to apply their [right] of self-defense against any [rebel] operation," according to the state-run Sudan Media Center.

A UN spokeswoman said yesterday that Sudan has pledged to halt military operations in Darfur.

Baptiste confirmed that the Sudanese government had asked the AU and the United Nations to forward a cease-fire request to the rebels, but he said he did not know exactly when that request would be passed on. He also said the government announced it was ready to leave territory taken after an April 8 agreement with the rebels.

The AU is monitoring an earlier, largely ignored cease-fire pact in Darfur, using about 800 AU soldiers and 100 observers.

A rebel spokesman attending peace negotiations with AU mediators in Abuja, Nigeria, said the insurgents received no formal notification of Sudan's unilateral cease-fire offer.

''What they're saying and what they're doing are completely different," said Ahmed Tugod Lissan, spokesman for both rebel groups involved in the peace talks.

''The situation on the ground is very serious. The Sudanese government is building up for war and the war is continuing."

AU mediators met separately in Nigeria with rebel and government delegates, hoping to revive stalled peace talks, AU spokesman Assane Ba said.

Three earlier rounds of negotiations failed to calm Darfur, home to what the United Nations has called the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

In Washington, the United States expressed grave concern yesterday about escalating violence in Darfur and blamed both sides.

''We urge both sides in the strongest terms to cooperate fully with international humanitarian efforts," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

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