Sudan forced to drop bid to lead the African Union

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The Sudanese government, which has been accused of human rights abuses in Darfur, signalled that it was ready to withdraw its candidacy to chair the African Union after five countries withdrew their support.

After hours of closed-door talks at an African summit in Khartoum, a senior Sudanese official announced that his country was prepared to back down, and negotiations were under way on a substitute.

The move was welcomed by the representative of Human Rights Watch, Reed Brody, who was on the sidelines of the meeting in the Sudanese capital. "It takes a lot of courage for African leaders to tell Al Bashir that Sudanese atrocities disqualify him," said Mr Brody, referring to Sudan's president, Omar Hassan Al Bashir.

"Africa needs a stronger and more credible voice. There was a lot of unease about Africa being represented by an international pariah on trade, debt relief and peacekeeping." Sudan nominated itself to chair the African Union (AU), based on a tradition that the host of its summit becomes the organisation's next leader. Delegates said that after Sudan withdrew, the leaders had agreed to allow Nigeria, the outgoing AU chairman, to stay on for another year.

Darfur rebels, who have been fighting Arab militias allied to the Sudanese government, had threatened to pull out of AU-sponsored peace talks in Nigeria if Sudan became head of the pan-African organisation.

An AU force of 7,000 troops is monitoring a tentative truce between the government and rebels in Darfur, where three years of fighting has triggered a humanitarian crisis.

But the AU force lacks equipment and funds to cope with its mandate in a region the size of France, and has warned that it may have to hand control of the force to the United Nations. Sudan bitterly opposes such a move.

James Smith, who heads the Aegis Trust, a UK-based genocide prevention organisation, said: "After almost three years of genocidal killing, 300,000 people are dead and two million languish in internally displaced people's camps too afraid to return home to plant their crops.

"Despite admirable work on the part of the AU, protection for civilians remains completely inadequate.

"It's time that we honoured the commitment made at the World Summit in September last year and shouldered our responsibility to protect civilians at risk of mass murder."