African Union expanding Darfur peacekeeping force

ADDIS ABABA - The African Union is recruiting new troops for Darfur from Africa and wrote to Nato for logistic support despite apprehension in Sudan, visiting UN Security Council members were told on Wednesday.

The 15-nation Security Council came to Addis Ababa, seat of the African Union (AU), to consult AU officials before returning to Sudan where it is trying to persuade the government to accept UN peacekeepers by the end of the year.

The under-financed and ill-equipped African Union has 7000 troops and monitors in Darfur, where ethnic cleansing has driven two million people from their homes.

Speaking after a meeting with AU chief executive Alpha Oumar Konare, UK ambassador Emyr Jones Parry said the UN would work with the AU to ensure its mission was strengthened.

"Before the UN actually takes over the African Mission in Sudan (AMIS) needs to be reinforced and we will be working together to make sure AMIS is reinforced," Mr Jones Parry said.

According to a council member at the meeting, Konare expected more troops from Ghana, Rwanda and Nigeria to make a total of 10,000 soldiers and observers in Darfur.

He also wants back-up support, such as transport and communications, from Western nations and on Wednesday said he wrote a letter to Nato outlining AU needs, the envoys reported.

But Konare stressed he did not want Western soldiers - regarded by Sudanese officials as invaders - on the ground.

Sudan signed a peace agreement with the main Darfur rebel group on May 5, but two other rebel factions refused to sign, further adding to mayhem that has cost at least 200,000 lives from fighting, hunger and disease.

Konare and Jones Parry told reporters the African Union and the United Nations were on the same track over the future of a UN Darfur force, which is expected to happen by the end of the year, providing Sudan gives its consent.

"We mapped out between us what we would like to see happen," Jones Parry said. "At the request of the African Union, the United Nations is prepared to take over the peacekeeping operation.

Konare told reporters he was "confident" that this would happen, adding: "The troops are not coming to start a war with Sudan."

Sudan, which is an AU member, has agreed to a military planning team comprising UN and AU officials.

But Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir took a tough line with council members in Khartoum on Tuesday against any kind of robust UN force, council members reported.

They said he invoked the US-led invasion of Iraq and fearing a UN mandate would give foreign troops free military reign.

The AU on Thursday is expected to meet members of two splinter rebel groups who object to their leaders' rejection of the peace pact.

The fighting in Darfur escalated in early 2003 between African rebel farmers and Arab tribesmen, armed by the government and blamed for many of the atrocities, including widespread rape.

- REUTERS

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