Sudan

Sudan says willing to talk on UN-AU Darfur operation

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By Alaa Shahine

KHARTOUM, April 22 (Reuters) - Sudan is willing to talk with the United Nations and the African Union about a hybrid U.N.-AU operation in Darfur but will not accept such a force under Western "blackmail", a presidential adviser said on Sunday.

Mustafa Osman Ismail strongly criticised the United States and Britain for threatening to impose sanctions on Khartoum for not accepting a large U.N. force to secure the troubled region in western Sudan.

He also said Sudan was committed to the first two U.N. support packages to help the underfunded and overstretched 5,000-strong African Union force in Darfur.

"There is readiness to talk with the United Nations and the African Union about the third stage, which is the hybrid operation," he told reporters after talks with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki.

The second support package includes the deployment of 3,000 U.N. police and military personnel. Khartoum has said these personnel would only provide logistical support for the AU force and insisted African troops will dominate any peacekeeping mission in Darfur.

But U.S. President George W. Bush warned Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir he had one last chance to avoid sanctions by agreeing to a full joint U.N.-AU force.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair also said the situation in Darfur was "unacceptable" and threatened Khartoum with a new U.N. Security Council resolution authorising sanctions.

Ismail, however, said Khartoum would not bend to pressure.

"There is an illusion among some Western leaders, like the prime minister of Britain, that Khartoum only responds to pressure. This is an illusion," he said.

"The challenge and the test now facing Washington and London is that they give up this blackmail ... and allow the United Nations to fund the AU troops."

The United Nations says around 200,000 people have been killed in Darfur and 2.5 million displaced since the conflict flared in 2003, when rebel groups took up arms against the government, charging it with neglect. Khartoum says only 9,000 people have died.

A 2006 peace deal between the government and one rebel faction has failed to stop the violence in the remote region. Ismail said Eritrea was trying to bring rebel groups to the negotiating table with the Khartoum government.

Eritrea mediated a peace deal between Sudan and eastern rebels in October. Khartoum has expressed willingness to hold peace talks in Asmara, but some Western nations are wary they will be sidelined if negotiations are held in the Red Sea state.

Ismail also said Chadian President Idriss Deby was expected to visit Khartoum early in May "to focus on what Chad could contribute with, since the positions of these Darfuri (rebel) groups are inside Chad."

Sudan and Chad have traded accusations of supporting rebel groups on both sides.

(Additional reporting by Jack Kimball in Asmara)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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