The Sudanese president has announced a truce ahead of planned peace talks with Darfur rebels next month as the Pope received the Islamist leader during a visit to Italy.
The announcement came ahead of a global "Day for Darfur" tomorrow aimed at keeping up international pressure for a ceasefire and to speed up deployment of a UN force. Anita Roddick, who died last Monday, was among signatories of an open letter calling for an immediate ceasefire in the western Sudanese province where an estimated 200,000 people have been killed since 2003.
The letter, which said the UN decision to send in 26,000 peacekeepers had "changed nothing" on the ground, where "murder, rape and devastation" was continuing, was signed by 26 women, including the actresses Cate Blanchett and Mia Farrow, the supermodel Elle MacPherson and the writer Germaine Greer.
The Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, sought to portray himself yesterday as a peacemaker after holding talks in Rome with the Italian Prime Minister, Romano Prodi. "We have announced we are willing [to put in place] a ceasefire with the start of the negotiations to create a positive climate," he said at a news conference, referring to the negotiations with rebel groups scheduled for 27 October in Libya.
"We hope that the negotiations in Tripoli will be the last ones and that they will bring a final peace," President al-Bashir added. Mr Prodi said the truce offer was "an important signal, a strong signal that I welcomed".
Earlier ceasefires have not held in the province where government forces and Arab militias have forced more than 2 million people to flee from their homes. Fighting has flared anew after the UN Security Council vote in July on the peacekeeping force.
Prospects for the peace talks are similarly gloomy, as the most influential leader, Abdel Wahid al-Nur, has let it be known that he will continue to boycott negotiations until there is a truce and the UN peacekeepers are on the ground. Negotiations are continuing on the make-up of the force, which is not expected to be deployed until next year.
The Pope, who has expressed concern about Darfur, met the Sudanese leader at his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo. A spokesman said the meeting focused on "the promotion of peace and the common good".
However, human rights organisations expressed concern about President al-Bashir's visit. Human Rights Watch said Italy should press him to arrest leaders wanted by the International Criminal Court for their role in the Darfur massacres. One suspect, Ahmed Haroun, a former junior interior minister who is wanted on 42 counts of crimes against humanity, was recently named state minister of humanitarian affairs. The appointment was described as "outrageous and shows the government's utter disregard for the plight of the Darfur displaced" by Lotte Leicht, Human Rights Watch's EU advocacy director.
Amnesty International said it was "remarkable" that the Italian government had decided to receive the Sudanese leader.