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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 September 2006, 07:30 GMT 08:30 UK
AU extends Darfur troops mandate
An African Union soldier stands guard in the village of Goes Being in Darfur
African Union troops are poorly equipped and often unpaid
The African Union (AU) has decided to extend the mandate of its peacekeeping force in the Sudanese region of Darfur until the end of the year.

The decision was announced after a meeting of African heads of state at the United Nations in New York.

Sudan's foreign minister reportedly welcomed the move, but said he would have preferred a six-month extension.

More than 200,000 people have died in the three-year rebellion. Over two million people have been displaced.

If the Sudanese government does not approve the peacekeeping force quickly, the UN must act
US President Bush

The Sudanese government has repeatedly rejected plans to transform the African force into the 22,000-strong UN mission agreed to by the Security Council last month.

The UN wants to send a full international peacekeeping operation to end what some governments have called genocide perpetrated by the Sudanese army and its associated militias.

Burkina Faso President Blaise Campaore, who chaired the meeting, announced the AU force would be strengthened by troops from African countries, logistical support from the UN and financial help from the Arab League.

But the BBC's Mike Wooldridge at the UN says the decision only gives hope that the imminent danger of greater bloodshed and an even bigger humanitarian crisis will be averted.

Representatives of all the Security Council members and 10 other nations will now meet on the margins of the UN General Assembly on Friday to discuss bolstering support for the peacekeepers.

The short-term plan is to is to strengthen this force with extra funding and material and logistical support, our correspondent says.

Crisis 'exaggerated'

Sudanese Foreign Minister Al-Sammani Al-Wasila Al-Sammani told AFP news agency the 7,000-strong AU force - which had been due to leave by 30 September - was preferable to the UN force proposed by the Security Council.

"The extension is welcome and would have been much better if it had been extended even longer, six months for instance, because the African troops have now got acquainted with the region and its people," he said.

Refugees from fighting in Darfur tell their stories

"I think it is easier for the international community to assist financially and technically an AU force which is already on the ground rather than starting from scratch with other forces like those of the UN."

UK Foreign Office spokesman Lord Triesman said that while the extension of the AU force was not the solution to the problem it could serve as a transitional stage before the UN came in.

Prior to the meeting, Mr Bashir said the plan to replace AU troops with a UN force was a "Zionist plot" intended to weaken states in the region "in order to help Israel".

He said the move would allow opponents to dismember Sudan and plunder its resources.

He also insisted reports of a humanitarian crisis in Darfur were exaggerated.

But much of Darfur is inaccessible to aid agencies and the security situation has deteriorated in recent weeks.

A recent academic report said the number of additional deaths caused by the three-year conflict in Darfur ran into the hundreds of thousands and not tens of thousands.

The UN general assembly has already heard forceful calls for action in Darfur.

US President George W Bush said the credibility of the UN was at stake and announced the appointment of a special American envoy, former Unsaid chief Andrew Natsios, to help in the efforts.

The UN mission in Sudan has warned that hundreds of thousands of people could be freshly displaced if international peacekeepers leave Darfur.

Details on why the African Union extended the mandate

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