NAIROBI, Kenya, April 5 (AP) - The United States must take the lead in efforts to end the 18-year civil war in Sudan, a delegation of U.S. Roman Catholic bishops said Thursday, emphasizing that the conflict can no longer be ignored by the international community.

``The judgment of history will be determined by the courage and determination of the international community to take bold steps now to help this cruel war end. In our judgment, the United States must play a central role in this effort,'' said the Most Rev. John Ricard, bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee and head of Catholic Relief Services.

Ricard is one of three bishops who, together with other officials from U.S. Catholic welfare agencies, spent two weeks in both government-and rebel-controled areas of Africa's largest nation meeting officials and rebel leaders.

War has plagued Sudan for 33 of the 44 years since it gained independence from Anglo-Egyptian rule in 1956.

The latest conflict broke out in 1983 and is commonly portrayed as a fight between the Christian south - although most of the inhabitants there follow traditional African religions - whose leaders are seeking greater autonomy and religious freedom, and the Muslim north.

But scholars and analysts agree that competition for resources, disagreement among ethnic groups historically fueled by outside powers like Britain and Egypt, politics as well as religion all contribute to the conflict.

More than 2 million people have died as a result of fighting and war-related famine since 1983. The World Food Program says more than 3 million people in Sudan are threatened by famine this year.

Ricard told reporters that awareness of the conflict is growing in the United States, and it was the bishops' intention to persuade Americans and their government to become more involved in ending the war.

He said the international community and the United Nations should help negotiate, then monitor, an immediate cessation of hostilities in Sudan.

Critics have called the U.S. approach to the conflict simplistic, saying its diplomatic and material support for the Sudan People's Liberation Army - the main southern rebel faction - together with its condemnation of the Khartoum government as a sponsor of international terrorism merely prolongs the war.

Ricard said it was ``perfectly clear'' that the primary responsibility for the prosecution of the war lies with the government of President Omar el-Bashir. But he said the U.S. Catholic Church would try to persuade the Bush administration to be ``objective, realistic and to consider the needs and aspirations of all parties to the conflict and all elements in the Sudan.''

``From our discussions ... we have found ... that this conflict cannot be characterized in simple terms. All attempts to reduce the war to any single factor distorts reality and does not serve the cause of peace,'' Ricard said.

Secretary of State Colin Powell told Congress last month that ``there is perhaps no greater tragedy on the face of the earth today'' than the war in Sudan.

And the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom declared Sudan to be ``the world's most violent abuser of the right to freedom of religion and belief'' and pressed the Bush administration to make a greater effort to end the civil war.

The United States is the single biggest donor to relief operations in Sudan. Since 1983, Washington has spent more than dlrs 1.5 billion in relief aid in Sudan, some going to civilians in government-controlled areas, but the large majority going to areas held by or fought over by various groups of southern rebels.

Numerous American religious organizations carry out relief work in rebel-held territory in the south, and Ricard said he was concerned that some of the more extreme groups were oversimplifying the cause of the conflict.

``The United States population is predominantly Christian. It would be naive of me to say that there isn't a Christian bias. That is there, but there are also 5 million Muslims in the United States. The United States, more and more, is reflecting a pluralistic society.''

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