By Evelyn Leopold
UNITED NATIONS, May 17 (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon intends to hold Khartoum to its "firm agreement" to allow the United Nations to bolster African Union soldiers with a force of more than 20,000 troops and police in Darfur.
At issue is a "hybrid" AU-U.N. force, with up to 24,000 troops, police and civilians, which the Sudanese government has said is too large and that African Union with its 7,000 troops can go it alone providing it gets U.N. financing.
But Ban, in an interview with Reuters television on Wednesday, said, "We have a firm agreement in principle between the Sudanese government and United Nations and African Union that there will be a hybrid operation, so therefore it is a matter of implementing this commitment."
"It is very important for Sudanese government to keep their commitment," he said, after having conducted a series of telephone calls with Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.
Aides describe Ban as persistent in pursuing agreement on the force, noting that he told the Korea Society earlier this week that Darfur put to the test "the authority of the Security Council, the image of the United Nations in the Arab world and the credibility of the United Nations."
At least 200,000 people have been killed and more than 2 million are homeless since 2003 in ethnic and political conflict triggered by a rebellion in Darfur. Rebels are fighting government troops and their Janjaweed militia allies.
Sudan has accepted a so-called "heavy support package" of 4,000 extra peacekeepers, that will cost the United Nations some $289 million.
HOPE FOR TALKS
Ban said the new force would be headed by a "very distinguished Nigerian general." The current AU operation is under the command of Gen. Luke Aprezi of Nigeria.
Most of the 4,000 U.N. peacekeepers would staff control centers and provide other services but not join infantry units.
"There is an agreement that the major forces will be provided by Africans, but for administrative and financial and technical as well as the special forces will be manned by the United Nations," Ban said.
But at this point recruiting troops, while no peace pact is holding, is proving difficult.
"Now it is a matter how far we can get support from member states, including African states," Ban said.
At the same time, Ban, through Swedish diplomat Jan Eliasson, has initiated talks between the government and rebel groups. Only one rebel faction signed an initial Darfur Peace Agreement with Khartoum last year.
Eliasson, visiting Washington, said he understood U.S. patience was limited in imposing further sanctions but that the timing had to be right for punitive measures.
"In my negotiations it's not bad to have the drums (threat of sanctions) in the background but you also must understand that we have worked very hard to open a little bit of diplomatic space," he told the Atlantic Council of the United States.
U.S. officials told Reuters the White House was becoming impatient that not enough progress was being made and could within the next week announce the new sanctions. But they stressed a final decision had not yet been taken.
The United States and Britain are also considering international sanctions in the U.N. Security Council, which would have a wider impact, including imposing an arms embargo on all of Sudan.
(Additional reporting by Sue Pleming in Washington)
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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