AU to increase Darfur troops to 11,000

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) — The African Union will add 4,000 troops to its extended Darfur peacekeeping mission, bringing the number of police and soldiers in western Sudan to 11,000, a spokesman for the AU said on Monday.

“The Peace and Security Council of the AU… has endorsed the new concept of operation, extending the duration of stay of the African Mission in Sudan up to December 31, 2006, and to boost the troop level by six battalions,” said Assan Ba, spokesman for the AU in Addis Ababa.

One battalion consists of 680 troops. The AU said the soldiers would come from countries already contributing troops in Darfur — Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa and Senegal.

The move came as international pressure on Sudan rises to allow a robust force of 20,000 UN troops into Darfur to replace the 7,000 poorly funded and under-equipped AU forces tasked with monitoring a battered ceasefire.

An estimated 200,000 people have died in Darfur since violence flared in 2003, and 2.5 million have been displaced in the fighting between government forces, rebels and militias.

But the Sudanese government has refused to allow UN forces into Darfur, calling it a Western ploy to recolonise Sudan.

The African Union’s mandate in Darfur had been set to expire on September 30 and the pan-African body had said it could not continue beyond October because it was out of money and needed more equipment such as helicopters.

With aid experts predicting a new humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur if African troops withdrew, the AU agreed last week to extend its mission until December 31, with logistical and material support from the United Nations and funding from Arab states.

The United Nations has readied communications and other equipment and 100 personnel to help AU forces in the coming months.

Qatar’s UN Ambassador Nassir Abdulaziz Nasser said some $50 million had been raised for the force among Arab nations, who aimed at raising $100 million.

 Meanwhile, efforts were to continue on Monday at the United Nations to gear up for a possible mission transfer.

A UN force is seen as better able than the AU troops to aggressively enforce a tattered 2004 ceasefire and a peace deal signed in May, which a top UN envoy has described as comatose.

More than 140 countries interested in contributing troops and police to a UN peacekeeping force in Darfur are expected to attend a meeting convened by the UN department of peacekeeping operations in New York.

“Time is running out. The violence in Darfur is not subsiding, it is getting worse,” US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said at a special meeting on Darfur on Friday.

In his first news conference since returning from the UN General Assembly, Sudanese President Omar  Bashir sounded a defiant note in the face of the international pressure.

He said on Sunday night he would impose a travel ban on US officials that would confine them to Khartoum, similar to restrictions placed on Sudanese officials in the United States.

“Any American official who comes to Sudan, we will stamp his passport for only 25km from the presidential palace,” Bashir told journalists. “And even if they apologise and lift theirs, we will not lift ours.” He said the decision could be reconsidered after ties improve. Bashir’s announcement was met with spontaneous cheers of “God is Greatest” by Sudanese journalists.

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