* Gration, raised in Africa, is close to Obama
* Sudan says it is ready for "constructive engagement"
* Darfur activists welcome Gration appointment (Adds quotes, details, Sudan's reaction)
By David Alexander
WASHINGTON, March 18 President Barack Obama named retired Air Force General Scott Gration on Wednesday as his special envoy to Sudan, picking a close adviser with broad experience in the region to lead U.S. efforts on the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Darfur.
"Sudan is a priority for this administration, particularly at a time when it cries out for peace and for justice," Obama said in a statement announcing Gration's appointment. "The worsening humanitarian crisis there makes our task all the more urgent."
Sudan's U.N. ambassador said Khartoum wanted "constructive engagement" with the new U.S. special envoy.
"We are ready for dialogue and cooperation," Sudanese Ambassador Abdalmahmoud Abdalhaleem told Reuters in an interview. "We hope the U.S. will reciprocate."
Gration, a decorated fighter pilot, was raised in Africa and is fluent in Swahili. He is a close Obama adviser and often traveled with him during the presidential campaign last year.
They got to know each other when Obama visited Africa in 2006 while still a senator. During that trip they visited Darfur refugees in Chad, a neighbor of Sudan.
"I have worked closely and directly with General Gration for several years, and have traveled with him to refugee camps in Chad filled with those who were displaced by the genocide in Darfur," Obama said in the statement. "He is a valued personal friend and I am pleased he has accepted this assignment."
The appointment comes at a time of deepening crisis in Sudan.
The country expelled 13 aid groups after the International Criminal Court charged President Omar Hassan al-Bashir with war crimes in Darfur, where 4.7 million people rely on foreign assistance for food, shelter and protection from fighting between rebels and government-backed forces.
"The government of Sudan's disastrous decision to expel humanitarian relief organizations leaves a void that will be filled by deprivation and despair and they will be held accountable for the lives lost," Obama said.
"I have made clear my intention to work with the international community to end the suffering," he added. "That means supporting the full, unobstructed deployment of the joint African Union/United Nations peacekeeping force and the negotiation of a political solution that will give the people of Darfur a meaningful voice."
Darfur activists welcomed the Gration announcement.
"He seems like a good choice. What is important is his experience, his gravitas and his close relationship with President Obama. I think all of those things will contribute greatly to his effectiveness," Jerry Fowler, president of the Save Darfur Coalition, told Reuters.
"We will be looking to see if he has the mandate and the authority to drive U.S. policy on Sudan." (Additional reporting by Sue Pleming in Washington and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Editing by John O'Callaghan)