KHARTOUM - The United States is keen to expand relations with Sudan that have gained a "positive momentum" after Washington lifted its trade embargo against Khartoum, a top US diplomat said Thursday.
US Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan's remarks came as he began a two-day visit to Khartoum aimed at discussing a range of issues, including human rights and religious freedom in the African country.
Sullivan is the highest ranking official from US President Donald Trump's administration to visit Khartoum since Washington lifted its embargo on October 12.
"Now we begin the process of looking forward to expanding our relationship," Sullivan said at the start of a meeting with Sudanese Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour.
"We have discussed (a) number of areas (where) we need to work together to continue the positive momentum that we have begun over the last 16 months."
Washington had imposed financial sanctions on Khartoum in 1997 for its alleged support for Islamist militant groups.
Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden used to live in Sudan between 1992 and 1996.
After decades of strained diplomatic relations, ties between Washington and Khartoum improved under the presidency of Barack Obama, later resulting in the lifting of sanctions by Trump, his successor.
"Lifting of the sanctions is the first step, but it is an important crucial step," said Ghandour, adding that Khartoum's ultimate aim was to have "full normalisation of (the) relationship" with Washington.
- US blacklist --
For Khartoum, Sullivan's visit is an opportunity to push for removing Sudan from Washington's blacklist of "state sponsors of terrorism".
Although Washington lifted the sanctions, it has kept Khartoum on the blacklist, much to the dismay of Sudanese officials.
"Our agenda is to remove Sudan from the list of terrorism," senior foreign ministry official Abdulghani Elnaim said on Wednesday.
The US Department of State said Sullivan will also push for "human rights including religious freedom" during his visit to Khartoum.
Washington has regularly expressed concerns about Khartoum's human rights record given the restrictions on religious and media freedoms in the country.
Rights groups have accused Sudan's security forces of arbitrarily detaining journalists, opposition politicians and human rights defenders.
Sudan's powerful National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) often confiscate entire print-runs of newspapers without giving a reason, particularly when they publish articles opposing government policies.
Campaign groups have urged Washington to consider such issues when formulating policy with Khartoum.
"Ever since the significantly Christian South Sudan gained its independence from Sudan in 2011, the Sudanese government has focused greater attention on reducing the number of churches and their activities in Sudan," John Prendergast of the Washington-based campaign group Enough Project wrote days before the lifting of the sanctions.
Khartoum insists that Sudan upholds human rights and religious freedom, which it says is exemplified by several churches existing next to mosques.
Ervin Massinga, deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Khartoum, said this week: "Progress on issues such as human rights and religious freedom... ending the civil conflict and bringing all Sudanese into the political process... are very important to us."