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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 September 2006, 14:06 GMT 15:06 UK
Sudan welcomes Darfur extension
An African Union soldier stands guard in the village of Gos Beina in Darfur
There is hope that the AU can avert greater bloodshed in Darfur
Sudanese officials have welcomed a decision by the African Union to extend the mandate of its peacekeeping force in Darfur until the end of the year.

Foreign Minister Al-Sammani Al-Wasila Al-Sammani told AFP news agency the force was preferable to a UN force proposed by the Security Council.

But he said a six-month extension to the mandate would have been better.

The UN wants to send peacekeepers to end what some states call genocide by Sudan's army and associated militias.

However 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 BBC's Jonah Fisher in Darfur says African Union (AU) troops are providing some security but it is a mere sticking plaster on a gaping wound.

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

Transitional stage

Mr Al-Sammani said the 7,000-strong AU force - which had been due to leave by 30 September - was better than the alternatives.

7,200 troops
Mandate renewed until 31 December
Mainly Rwandan and Nigerian troops
Main role to monitor and verify peace agreement
Low in morale, poorly equipped and vulnerable to attack

"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," he said.

Meanwhile Sudanese presidential adviser Majdhub al-Khalifah said the AU decision would give an impetus to Khartoum and signatory rebel movements to implement the Abuja peace agreement on the ground.

The UN Secretary General's special envoy to Sudan, Jan Pronk, gave the decision a cautious welcome, but warned that the AU force needed strengthening and a more robust mandate.

"They are not as effective as they used to be a year ago but they deter by their presence and if they would leave, which the government wants, then the road would be open for all forces of evil," he said.

A UK Foreign Office spokesman 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.

UN debate

The decision was announced after a meeting of African heads of state at the United Nations in New York, along with pledges to strengthen the force and add logistical support from the UN and financial help from the Arab League.

See which parts of Darfur are too dangerous for aid workers

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 strengthen this force with extra funding and material and logistical support, our correspondent says.

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

Details on why the African Union extended the mandate

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