AU agrees to keep troops in Darfur region until 2007

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The African Union agreed in New York to extend its military mission in Darfur until the end of this year at the same time as the President of Sudan, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, reiterated his opposition to a United Nations deployment.

The decision assures the continuing presence of foreign soldiers in the region beyond 30 September when the mission had been due to end. Agreement was also reached on bolstering the African force of 7,000 soldiers.

Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, said Britain was ready to consider giving assistance to the AU mission, including possibly providing heavy airlift capacity. She meanwhile insisted that the UN would continue to try to persuade President al-Bashir of the need for the UN force, which would number about 22,500 troops and with a stronger mandate to intervene in the conflict.

Speaking of the Sudanese government, she said: "How mistaken you might think they are, they do have some genuine anxieties. But if those anxieties can be overcome, then their position might be changed."

After walking out half way through the AU meeting, President al-Bashir offered only a sharp "No" when asked by reporters if he would reconsider his opposition to the UN force. Diplomats reported that he had "received quite a pasting" from other African leaders. The AU force in Darfur has so far had only limited success in ending the suffering, where as many as 200,000 people have been killed by violence and disease with 2.5 million more displaced.

Just how the force will be beefed up and whether troop numbers will be increased was not clear. Nor was it obvious if the AU would be prepared to keep its soldiers there if an agreement on deployment of the UN force were not reached this year.

Expressing his opposition to the creation of a UN force, President al-Bashir said: "It is very clear there is a plan to redraw the region," he told reporters. "Any state in the region should be weakened, dismembered in order to protect the Israelis, to guarantee Israeli security."