ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) – Sudan and two rebel groups worked on Friday to set an agenda for talks aimed at ending 17 months of fighting that has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced more than 1 million.

The shadowy Arab militia known as the Janjaweed, blamed for the bulk of the killings in Darfur in western Sudan, did not attend.

The black African rebels were demanding a timeline for implementing Sudan’s pledge to disarm the Janjaweed before agreeing to an agenda for the peace talks, said a third-party observer, who spoke only on condition of anonymity.

The rebels were also seeking commitments by the government to release all war prisoners, the observer said, and to lift restrictions on aid in the region. Both conditions are part of a widely ignored cease-fire signed April 8.

The U.N. health agency said on Friday in Geneva that the death rate in Darfur had decreased somewhat over the last six months, but would soar again during the rainy season unless refugee camp conditions improved.

Still, the World Health Organization estimated that the death rate in Darfur, which the U.N. calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, is 20 times the normal rate for a developing country.

Dr. David Nabarro, head of the WHO, said about 50,000 people have died the last six months because of disease in Darfur refugee camps. Separately, the U.N. estimates 30,000 people have died in the fighting.

The African Union-sponsored peace talks began Thursday, and leaders were still arriving Friday. Chad, which borders Sudan and is hosting more than 200,000 Darfur refugees, is also mediating.

Nomadic Arab tribes have long been in conflict with their African farming neighbors over Darfur’s dwindling water and usable land. Violence exploded in February 2003 when two African rebel groups took up arms over what they regard as unjust treatment by the government.

Since then, a calamity has unfolded, as armed bands of herders, most of them Arab, have torched villages, driving more than a million black Africans from their homes.

Sudan signed an agreement with the U.N. on July 3 that calls for disarming the Janjaweed, deploying soldiers, facilitating aid, and allowing African Union troops and human rights monitors into Darfur.

U.N. and African leaders say it is up to the Sudanese government to contain the Janjaweed. But humanitarian workers have privately questioned how much control authorities exert in a desolate area the size of Iraq.

The peace talks follow a diplomatic push by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who both visited the region this month.

Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., chairman of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, canceled a planned trip to Darfur because of action on the House floor Thursday night. Kolbe said he planned to reschedule the trip.

Associated Press reporter Erica Bulman contributed to this report from Geneva.

AP-ES-07-16-04 1410EDT

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