updated 9/4/2006 6:07:42 PM ET 2006-09-04T22:07:42

Sudan gave African Union troops a one-week ultimatum Monday to accept a deal that would block a proposed U.N. peacekeeping force in Darfur or else leave the war-torn region, a step that would likely worsen the world's worst humanitarian disaster.

The deadline escalates Khartoum's standoff with the United Nations over Darfur to a key crisis point, pitting Khartoum's determination to resist possible war crimes investigations against the U.N.'s appetite for a new, rough peacekeeping mission.

Many observers believe Sudan has dug in against a U.N. deployment in the vast western region because it fears the force will hunt down officials and government allies suspected of war crimes for atrocities against Darfur's ethnic Africans.

At the same time, the United States and Europe have stepped up their demands that Sudan let in the U.N. troops, which still must be assembled at a time when the world body it putting together a peacekeeping force for south Lebanon. Sweden and Norway underlined on Monday that they were prepared to contribute to a Darfur intervention.

European Union spokesman Amadeu Altafaj Tardio warned of dire consequences if the African Union is forced to pull out before a U.N. force can take over.

"There would be a very difficult scenario," Altafaj Tardio said in a telephone interview. "We need a stronger force on the ground to ensure security. It is crucial to reach an agreement with the Sudanese before that deadline."

200,000 killed, 2.5 million displaced
The removal of the 7,000 African Union peacekeepers in Darfur would raise the prospect of a new upsurge of fighting in the region, where some 200,000 have been killed and 2.5 million people displaced since 2003.

Khartoum has already launched a major new offensive in Darfur, reportedly involving thousands of troops and militias backed by bomber aircraft.

The AU force, which is underfunded and staffed, has struggled to keep stability amid an upsurge of violence in recent months. The United Nations wants to deploy a beefed up force of 20,000 troops 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 United Nations' authority, pending Khartoum's consent. Sudan promptly rejected the resolution.

On Monday, Sudan went a step further. Foreign Minister Ali Ahmed Kerti said the AU force can only remain in the country if they accept Arab League and Sudanese funding. He gave the African Union a week to respond to its offer or get its troops out of the country, a government statement said.

Kerti said he made the offer at a meeting he called Monday with the African Union representative in Khartoum, Nigerian Ambassador Baba Gana Kingibe.

Kerti insisted that Sudan was not trying to get rid of the peacekeepers, saying it "has always advocated the presence of African force in Darfur." He said the Arab League has offered to help fund the force after the mandate ends.

The conflict in Darfur began in 2003 when ethnic African tribes revolted against the Arab-led Khartoum government. The government is accused of unleashing 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.

Despite a May peace deal signed by the government and one of the three ethnic African rebel groups, U.N. officials and aid workers say the crisis has only deepened in recent months, with violence at a new high.

The United Nations has warned of hundreds of thousands of deaths if aid operations collapse. Twelve aid workers have been killed in Darfur this year, most in the last two months.

Britain's Foreign Office warned on Monday that "there could potentially be significant humanitarian repercussion if this (U.N.) force is not in place. It looks clear to us that there is a significant buildup of the Sudan government military in Darfur."

The office said Sudan was appearing "hostile to the African Union, which is unhelpful."

But Sudan has only been increasing its opposition to the United Nations' force.

On Sunday, riot police broke up demonstrations in favor of the peacekeepers at a university in el-Fasher, the capital of North Darfur province. Two students were killed and more than 10 injured, the United Nations reported. During the demonstrations, more than 50 military vehicles drove through the town, with helicopters overhead, in a show of force.

Al-Bashir sees colonial threat
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has rejected the U.N. presence as an attempt to impose Western colonial control over his country, instead offering to send 10,000 government troops to Darfur.

Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden — who was based in Sudan until al-Bashir's government forced him out in the late 1990s — also called on Islamic militants to battle any U.N. troops that deploy.

Anoushka Marashlian, an analyst with London-based Global Insight, said that the Sudanese leadership was concerned about officials being arrested on war crimes charges.

The United Nations has drawn up a list of officials, janjaweed members and rebels it wants to indict before the International Criminal Court.

"The spectacle of disheveled former Liberian strongman Charles Taylor facing war crimes charges at The Hague is enough of a deterrent for Bashir," Marashlian said.

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