Washington - The United States is ready to receive a senior envoy from Sudan in a bid to push forward the country's peace process, an official said Wednesday, in a move criticised by human rights advocates.
The United States invited a delegation led by an aide to President Omar al-Beshir, Nafie Ali Nafie, after he voiced an interest in travelling to Washington, said Larry Andre, the top State Department official on Sudan.
Andre said that the exact date has not been scheduled and that the United States has told Sudan that it would use the trip for a "candid discussion" on conflicts within the country and on human rights and other concerns.
Andre said that the trip plans came in light of the start of peace talks in Ethiopia between Sudan and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North, which is waging an insurgency in two states near newly independent South Sudan.
The United States maintains contact with rebel groups and Nafie is seen as playing a role in negotiations in the vast African country, where a separate conflict in Darfur was declared genocide by the United States.
"We do not view this visit as a reward, but as a continuation of a dialogue on issues of concern to the US government," Andre said.
"While we welcome recent steps by the government of Sudan to make progress in implementing its agreements with South Sudan and to start direct talks with the SPLM-N, we will make clear that we expect real and sustained progress on these issues and others, including Darfur," he said.
Talks between the United States and Sudan are rare in Washington, although US officials have travelled to Khartoum and then secretary of state Hillary Clinton met her Sudanese counterpart at the UN General Assembly in September.
Representative Frank Wolf, who has long been active on human rights in Sudan, denounced the invitation and cited charges that Nafie was personally involved in human rights abuses including the beating of a prisoner.
In a letter to President Barack Obama, Wolf said that he was not opposed to diplomacy but that talks could take place at other locations such as the US embassy in Khartoum.
"With Darfur worsening and continued indiscriminate attacks on civilians in the Nuba mountains displacing thousands, why would your administration reward Khartoum with an invitation to Washington?" Wolf wrote.
"Specifically, why would you reward the likes of Nafie Ali Nafie?" wrote Wolf, a Republican from Virginia.
Tom Andrews, president of the advocacy group United to End Genocide, said that Sudan has made false promises in the past and that thousands of people have been newly displaced in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states.
"Truly substantive progress should be seen before members of the regime are welcomed to the United States," said Andrews, a former Democratic congressman from Maine.
Andre, the State Department official, said that the United States refused to deal with Beshir and other Sudanese indicted by the International Criminal Court.
Sudan voiced hope for a better relationship with the United States after it allowed South Sudan to become independent in 2011 following decades of war, but fresh fighting broke out around the same time in the border states.
Advocacy groups have voiced concern that residents of South Kordofan and Blue Nile are facing extreme hunger due to indiscriminate bombing by Sudan, which has impeded agriculture.