Vice President Bush arrived here today with good wishes for an "old friend," embattled Sudanese President Jaafar Nimeri, but skirted policy differences that have held up $214 million in U.S. aid.

Bush lauded Sudanese "compassion" in taking in more than 1 million foreign refugees fleeing drought, famine and fighting in neighboring countries.

"I am here to show the United States is a friend of the great-hearted people of the Sudan," the vice president said in his arrival statement at the start of an African trip that will also take him to Niger and Mali.

The closest he came to the issue of interrupted aid was in noting that the Sudan was black Africa's largest recipient of U.S. economic assistance and "is receiving a large amount of food and disaster assistance."

He did not refer to the administration's refusal to disburse earmarked economic support worth $112 million in the last fiscal year and $102 million in this fiscal year because of Sudan's failure to carry out economic and financial reforms.

While saying he looked forward to "fruitful discusions" with Nimeri during his four-day stay, Bush avoided specifics, saying that "we do want to help where we can" and "the United States is committed to helping."

Describing Sudan as "an important friend of the United States" and a "key country in a volatile region," Bush said, "We are aware that Sudan faces problems on several fronts."

In addition to dealing with a collapsing economy, a major drought, and the continuing influx of mostly Ethiopian refugees, Nimeri's government is fighting a two-year-old civil war in the south.

Only yesterday, on the 13th anniversary of the negotiated settlement of an earlier southern revolt that he helped end, Nimeri announced a unilateral cease-fire and renewed longstanding offers of an amnesty and negotiations with the rebels led by John Garang, a former Army officer educated in the United States.

Military specialists here said the call was not likely to be heeded by the Ethiopian- and Libyan-backed rebels who are part of the non-Moslem minority.

They noted that the Sudanese Army only rarely has initiated operations against the rebels and that Nimeri specifically reserved the Army's right to fight back if attacked.

In addition to noting that U.S. food aid to Africa "reached a record level last year and will be over $1 billion this year," Bush also praised the private sector, which is "giving generously and will continue to help."

Underscoring the emphasis on private aid is the scheduled arrival during Bush's visit of three shipments of privately donated pharmaceuticals, food and blankets aboard transport planes provided by the U.S. government.

One load was donated by Americares, a Connecticut-based organization; a second was underwritten by Operation Blessing, described as the "human outreach of the Christian broadcasting network" and the third is backed by the American branch of Save the Children Federation.

A television evangelist, the Rev. Pat Robertson, was aboard Bush's jet as the vice president's personal guest.

Another evangelist, the Rev. Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority, is expected to meet Bush during his Sudan visit, possibly at the state dinner Nimeri is giving for the vice president Wednesday night.