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A defiant Sudan gives African force ultimatum

KHARTOUM, Sudan -- Sudan gave African Union troops a one-week ultimatum yesterday to accept a deal blocking a proposed UN peacekeeping force in Darfur, or else leave the war-torn region, a step that would probably worsen the world's worst humanitarian disaster.

The deadline escalates the Khartoum regime's standoff with the United Nations over Darfur, pitting Sudanese determination to resist possible war crimes investigations against a UN push to take on a new, tough peacekeeping mission.

Many observers believe Sudan has dug in against UN deployment in the vast western region because it fears the force will hunt down officials and government allies suspected of war crimes for atrocities allegedly committed by nomadic Arab tribes on Darfur's ethnic African communities.

The US and Europe have stepped up demands that Sudan let in UN troops, which still must be assembled at a time when the world body is forming a peacekeeping force for southern Lebanon. Sweden and Norway repeated yesterday that they are prepared to contribute to a Darfur intervention.

The removal of the AU peacekeepers would increase chances for a surge of bloodshed in the arid region, where fighting stemming from long standing disputes over land and water has killed about 200,000 people since 2003 and chased an estimated 2.5 million people from their homes.

After ethnic Africans revolted against the Arab-led Khartoum regime, the government allegedly unleashed Arab militiamen known as janjaweed who have been blamed for widespread atrocities. The United States has described the rapes, killings, and other attacks as genocide.

Sudan's military is now reportedly waging a major offensive in Darfur involving thousands of soldiers and militiamen backed by warplanes.

The AU force, which is underfunded and undermanned, has struggled to keep stability amid the recent violence, so the United Nations wants to deploy a beefed-up force of 20,000 soldiers with a stronger mandate to stop the fighting.

The African peacekeepers' mandate runs out Sept. 30, and last week the Security Council passed a resolution that would put the AU force under UN control, pending Sudan's consent. The government in Khartoum promptly rejected the resolution.

Yesterday, Sudan went a step further. Foreign Minister Ali Ahmed Kerti said the AU force can remain in Darfur only if it accepts Arab League and Sudanese funding. He gave the African Union a week to agree or get its troops out, a government statement said.

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