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NAIROBI, 22 July (IRIN) - More support for an expanded, better-equipped and better-trained African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS) is needed to stop violence against women in the country's war-ravaged western region of Darfur, a relief organisation said on Friday.
In a statement, Refugees International (RI) said the United States should provide "training and support to countries contributing troops to AMIS on prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse".
It urged the US to ensure "adequate funds for the peacekeeping mission are given, particularly for logistic support".
The organisation made the comments following a visit on Thursday by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Abu-shouk camp for the internally displaced in El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur.
Rice who highlighted the plight of women in the region during her visit to the camp, said Darfur had "a problem with violence against women, in the camps, [and] outside the camps".
According to RI, wherever AMIS forces were present, violence had diminished. However, the force still has inadequate numbers and an insufficiently robust mandate to satisfactorily protect the women in Darfur.
AMIS currently has some 3,000 personnel in Darfur, but plans to expand the force to about 7,500 by September. RI said even that expanded force would be insufficient top protect Darfur's women.
"A recent International Crisis Group report argued that 12-16,000 troops are urgently needed in Darfur to provide adequate security," RI noted.
"The mandate, however, is perhaps more important. A clear and strong mandate to protect civilians is critical if AMIS is to be able to prevent Darfurian women from being attacked and raped," it added.
Urging the US to provide training and assistance to AMIS troops to ensure they did not sexually exploit and abuse vulnerable women, RI said initiatives to strengthen African militaries' attempts to assess HIV infection rates and train soldiers in HIV awareness should be expanded to include all the African troops being deployed to Darfur.
It said Rice's decision to address violence against women in Darfur was an important step as part of the US' effort to end violence and impunity there.
According to the US State Department, Rice said an international effort was needed, and promised to "take that message home".
She said the US thought Africa could solve the problem in the region, and the African Union (AU) "has the lead".
Rice announced that for the first time, the US would have a representative to the AU. She suggested that the next session of the Abuja negotiations between the government and the armed movements in Darfur be held earlier than the scheduled date of 24 August.
"I think we need to accelerate the peace talks in Abuja [Nigeria] because we've got a lot of work to do if these children [in Abu-shouk camp] are going to grow up someplace else," she said.
Rice met President Umar al-Bashir and the country's newly appointed First Vice President, former southern rebel leader John Garang.
She said a new Sudanese government was "coming into being" and praised the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which paved the way for the country's government of national unity, saying it "gives us a new chance and a new start".
However, the US State Department quoted Rice as saying the Sudanese government had "a problem with credibility", and that people needed to see action, not just words, from Khartoum.
The war in Darfur pits Sudanese government troops and militias - allegedly allied to the government - against rebels fighting to end what they describe as marginalisation of and discrimination against the region's inhabitants by the state.
The UN estimates that over a third of the total population - more than 2.5 million people, including nearly 1.9 million internally displaced persons - have been affected by the conflict.
Recently the Dutch medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières reported that between October 2004 and February 2005, it treated more than 500 rape victims in South and West Darfur.
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