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Obama to ease Sudan sanctions on way out

FILE - In this Nov. 15, 2016 file photo, students line up outside a classroom with a map of Africa on its wall, in Yei, in southern South Sudan. The Obama administration is set to ease sanctions against Sudan and broaden now limited talks with the long estranged African government, a U.S.-designated terrorism sponsor whose leader has been indicted on war crimes charges, The Associated Press learned Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Justin Lynch, File)

FILE - In this Nov. 15, 2016 file photo, students line up outside a classroom with a map of Africa on its wall, in Yei, in southern South Sudan. The Obama administration is set to ease sanctions against Sudan and broaden now limited talks with the long estranged African government, a U.S.-designated terrorism sponsor whose leader has been indicted on war crimes charges, The Associated Press learned Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Justin Lynch, File)

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is set to ease sanctions against Sudan and broaden now limited talks with the long estranged African government, a U.S.-designated terrorism sponsor whose leader has been indicted on war crimes charges, The Associated Press learned Thursday.

The change in policy is a response to positive actions by the Sudanese government in fighting terrorism, reducing conflict, denying safe haven to South Sudanese rebels and improving humanitarian access to people in need, three officials told the AP.

The White House is expected to announce an easing of sanctions on Friday as part of a five-track engagement process, said the officials, who weren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity.

They said the administration will keep in place the broad set of economic and financial sanctions Sudan faces as a result of its "state sponsor of terrorism" designation. The penalties being suspended by the policy change could be re-imposed if Sudan backtracks on the progress it has made, they added.

In any case, decisions on continuing the diplomatic outreach will be up to the incoming Trump administration, which takes office on Jan. 20. Any changes are likely to enrage segments of the human rights community, who've long blasted Khartoum's Arab-led government for its conduct in Darfur and treatment of various ethnic groups.

Beyond recognizing Sudan's improvements, the officials said the new approach signals an admission that years of limited U.S. engagement with Khartoum had not produced the desired result. Such an acknowledgement fits with a general pattern under Obama of rapprochement with rogue or antagonistic states, including Cuba, Iran and Myanmar.

The administration hinted at a policy shift last fall.

In September, the State Department issued an out-of-the-blue statement welcoming Khartoum's co-operation in fighting Islamic extremist groups, without mentioning any specific development or reason for the public release. It said Sudan had taken "important steps" to take on the Islamic State group and other such organizations, adding that the U.S. would work with the country on security matters while pressing it on human rights and democracy.

At the time, the department said the U.S. maintained grave concerns about Sudan's policies, notably its handling of unrest in the western Darfur region, but described normalized relations as not out of the question.

The department first labelled Sudan a terrorism sponsor in 1993. Among those Sudan harboured was Osama bin Laden, prompting President Bill Clinton to launch airstrikes in 1998. Sudan is one of only three countries still identified as such after Cuba was removed from the list in 2015. Syria and Iran are the others, although the Obama administration sealed a landmark nuclear deal with Tehran a year and a half ago.

Sudan's changes have largely occurred below the radar. But the U.S. credits the country with limiting travel of Islamic State militants and shifting toward greater alignment with Saudi Arabia, and less with Iran. Israel also has pressed the U.S. to adopt a friendlier relationship with Sudan after it cracked down on shipments of suspected Iranian weapons to groups hostile to the Jewish state.

The announcement will surely draw criticism from human rights groups because of ongoing allegations of rights abuses, notably in Darfur, and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir's indictment by the International Criminal Court for related atrocities. Al-Bashir is wanted for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide charges.

Darfur has been gripped by bloodshed since 2003, when rebels took up arms against the government, accusing it of discrimination and neglect. The United Nations says 300,000 people have died in the conflict and 2.7 million have fled their homes.