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Sudan OKs U.N. Peacekeepers in Darfur

By MOHAMED OSMAN
The Associated Press
Saturday, December 23, 2006; 3:36 AM

KHARTOUM, Sudan -- Sudan has agreed to a United Nations peacekeeping role in the Darfur region, but U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he is taking "nothing for granted" after many false starts in getting relief to the war-torn area.

Sudanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Sadeq al-Magli on Friday didn't specify how many troops would be accepted but said the U.N. would mainly provide technical assistance, consultants and military and police experts. He added that the force would be commanded by the African Union.

Annan said earlier Friday he was encouraged that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir would agree to a hybrid AU-UN force, along with a cease-fire and renewed peace efforts.

"I do fervently hope that we are now at last close to rescuing the people of Darfur from their agony," he said. "But after so many disappointments, I take nothing for granted."

The United Nations had been pushing for a much larger role in Darfur _ where AU peacekeepers are already operating _ in an effort to put an end to fighting that has claimed more than 200,000 lives and left 2.5 million displaced.

But al-Magli's comments reflected his government's long standing opposition to the deployment of 20,000 U.N. troops as proposed by the U.N. Security Council.

In deference to Khartoum's opposition, the U.N. scaled back its plans to replace the current AU force of 7,000 troops in Darfur with the much bigger U.N. operation. Since early November, the U.N. has been pushing to reinforce the existing peacekeepers with smaller numbers of U.N. personnel as well as technical and financial assistance.

Some Sudanese officials in recent weeks had expressed approval for a U.N. force but others had raised questions, leaving it unclear if Friday's announcement would undergo further changes.

The violence in Darfur began in February 2003 when rebels from African tribes took up arms, complaining of discrimination and oppression by the Arab-dominated government. The government is accused of unleashing an Arab militia, the janjaweed, against the ethnic African community in a campaign of murder, rape and arson.

The government denies backing the janjaweed, but U.N. and AU officials have accused Khartoum of arming the militia and coordinating regular army attacks with it.

Annan said he had received an optimistic report from an envoy sent to Khartoum, encouraging him to "think we may tomorrow receive a green light from President Bashir for a full cease-fire, a renewed effort to bring all parties into (the) political process, and deployment of the proposed African Union-United Nations hybrid force."

Al-Magli said his government had not yet seen Annan's statement, but it was true that "Sudan has confirmed to the (U.N.) envoy that it would sit down for peace talks with the rebel factions any time, anywhere."

He said the world should pressure rebel factions that did not sign a May peace accord "to come to cease-fire talks and to stop attacking. But for us in the government, yes, we have confirmed our commitment to the cease-fire."

Earlier this week, Annan wrote to al-Bashir saying that the U.N. would make every effort to find African peacekeepers, but if that proved impossible, it would use "a broader pool of troop contributing countries."

Annan said the first phase of the plan would enhance the AU force by 105 military officers, 33 U.N. police and 48 international staffers, according to a copy of the letter released by the U.N.

But he said the mission would eventually have a minimum strength of 17,300 troops, 3,300 civilian police and 16 additional police units.

Al-Magli said his government accepted that phase but insisted the number of troops would be negotiated by the force commander and delegates from the U.N., the A.U. and Sudan.

© 2006 The Associated Press