Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright today turned a spotlight on what may be the world's most obscure and most lethal conflict: the civil war in Sudan.

On the last day of a six-day tour of Africa, Albright met with leaders of the main rebel group that has fought for 15 years to free Sudan's black, African south from the control of its Arab north.

The Sudanese government was on the American list of states supporting terrorism long before President Clinton last year sent cruise missiles to destroy a pharmaceutical factory he said was linked to Osama bin Laden, the Saudi expatriate charged with ordering the twin U.S. Embassy attacks in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. And in recent months, the administration has ratcheted up condemnations of human rights in Sudan, where southerners are frequently taken to the north as slaves.

The American rhetoric has been calculated to answer a "charm offensive" aimed at softening Sudan's image as it enters the world oil market. An oil field near the civil war front line last month began pumping crude for export, with the help of a private Canadian company, Talisman Energy Inc., and the governments of China and Malaysia.

"The government in Sudan has to understand that its charm offensive is not charming, and is offensive," Albright said. "And the only solution is to deal with the huge portions of their population that does not want to live under Sharia [or Islamic law]," which Khartoum's fundamentalist Muslim government wants to expand in the south, where most people follow Christian and traditional beliefs.

Albright called for reinvigorating a regional peace effort by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, known as IGAD. The peace talks are often discounted on the grounds that the leaders of many of the countries involved--including Ethiopia, Eritrea and Uganda--came to power by guerrilla movements, and may lack faith in any negotiated end to conflict.

John Garang, head of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, the main rebel group, emerged from his meeting with Albright repeating the U.S. line, discounting rival peace efforts by Libya and Egypt.

"Any other peace initiatives are welcome, but must be supportive of the IGAD peace process, rather than one cooperative or parallel to it," Garang said.

The rebels have received indirect American "nonlethal" military aid such as radios and boots, but Garang said he did not asked Albright for such aid today.

Instead, he said, they discussed the frustration of fighting for years in obscurity, and who would distribute the approximately $1 million in food given to the country each day through Operation Lifeline Sudan, a consortium of U.N. and private relief agencies based in northern Kenya.

Albright refused to send that aid through the rebels, who admitted taking at least their share in "taxation" from the people. She did, however, promise an additional $6 million to "civil society" groups operating in southern Sudan.

Albright said the southern Sudanese emphasized the need to stop fighting among themselves when she met with them. A grass-roots peace pact between the region's two largest tribes, the Dinka and Nuer, has not only held since March, but shows evidence of expanding.

If factional fighting between southerners shows signs of abating, however, the war against the north appears to be heating up. Albright expressed concern that the new oil pipeline will aggravate a conflict that by some estimates has killed 2 million people. "It becomes another resource over which to fight," she said.

Albright also expressed frustration with the United States' lack of leverage over Sudan. Neither country has an ambassador in the other's capital, because of security concerns on the U.S. side, and anger over the missile strike on the Sudanese side. And Khartoum recently rejected Clinton's appointment of former Florida congressman Harry Johnston as a special envoy.

Nor can the Americans count on their usual allies. Numerous European countries get on well with the Islamic fundamentalist regime, their ambassadors in Khartoum expressing puzzlement over the U.S. stance.