Sudan president's main rival in talks with Bush

A leading political rival of Omar al-Bashir, Sudan's embattled president, is to hold talks with President George Bush in Washington today, in what will be seen by ruling circles in Khartoum as further evidence of US attempts to foment regime change in Sudan.

Salva Kiir, a former rebel leader in the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA)who is now president of semi-autonomous southern Sudan, will discuss implementation of the 2005 north-south Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and other issues during a White House meeting, officials said.

Kiir, who also serves as vice-president in Khartoum's national unity government, is widely expected to run against Bashir for the presidency in CPA-mandated national elections scheduled for later this year.

The White House meeting comes shortly before the international criminal court is expected to issue a warrant for Bashir's arrest over genocide in Darfur.

US officials declined to discuss the political implications of the talks.

"This transformational peace agreement [the CPA], which ended 22 years of devastating war, continues to face serious challenges in the lead-up to national elections in 2009," the White House spokesman, Gordon Johndroe, said in a statement.

Johndroe said Bush and Kiir would also discuss the continuing crisis in Darfur, where a government ceasefire last autumn was ignored by the Justice and Equality Movement and other rebel factions. But the meeting is certain to be viewed in Khartoum in the context of perceived Bush administration efforts to force Bashir from office.

The US accuses Bashir and other senior officials of responsibility for genocide in Darfur, where the UN says up to 200,000 people have died and 2.7 million have been displaced since fighting erupted in 2004. The US has also designated Bashir's government a state sponsor of terrorism.

Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the chief ICC prosecutor, requested an arrest warrant for Bashir last year on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity relating to Darfur. Western diplomats say the indictment is certain to go ahead, most probably before the end of the month.

Addressing the UN security council in November, Moreno-Ocampo said the evidence against Bashir was overwhelming, and the US and other western states must be ready to enforce the arrest warrant.

Moreno-Ocampo said the situation in Darfur remained dire: "Genocide continues. Rapes in and around the [refugee] camps continue. Humanitarian assistance is still hindered. More than 5,000 displaced persons die each month."

Sudanese diplomats and officials have dismissed the allegations against Bashir as fabricated and part of an attempt by the US and the west to "blackmail" Sudan.

Bashir, backed by the African Union, Arab League and the Islamic Conference Organisation, says he does not recognise the ICC's jurisdiction. Sudan has previously refused to hand over two other officials indicted by the ICC.

US backing for southern Sudan extends beyond high-level talks with its leadership. American officials say Washington provides assistance and training for the SPLA, but deny reports that the US has also supplied weaponry.

Simon Tisdall