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updated 12/27/2006 11:09:20 PM ET 2006-12-28T04:09:20

Sudan raised new doubts Wednesday about its commitment to a U.N. peace effort in the violence-wracked Darfur region as its U.N. envoy ruled out any U.N. peacekeeping troops -- a key element of the world body's proposal.

The surprise statement came just minutes after the U.N. Security Council announced that it welcomed the Sudanese president's acceptance of the U.N. plan to help end the escalating conflict -- a plan that includes deployment of a "hybrid" African Union-United Nations force.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan had told Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in a letter earlier this month that every effort would be made to find African troops for a hybrid force of 17,300 military personnel and 5,300 police, but if that proved impossible the U.N. would use "a broader pool of troop contributing countries."

But Sudan Ambassador Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem told reporters on Wednesday evening that the hybrid force must be smaller and have no U.N. peacekeepers, only U.N. technical and logistical experts supporting African troops.

"The force is African, the leader is an African," he said. "There is support and logistical support staff by the U.N., wearing their own helmets, but they are not going to engage in peacekeeping activities."

Four years of fighting
The U.N. is seeking its own force for Darfur because African Union peacekeepers currently in the region have been unable to quell nearly four years of fighting which has killed more than 200,000 people and displaced 2.5 million in the region.

Fighting began in February 2003 when rebels from black African tribes took up arms, complaining of discrimination and oppression by Sudan's Arab-dominated government. The government is accused of unleashing Arab tribal militia known as the Janjaweed against civilians in a campaign of murder, rape and arson -- a charge the government denies.

The envoy's comments came as a surprise because al-Bashir said in a letter to Annan released Tuesday and discussed by the council on Wednesday that Sudan is ready "to start immediately" to implement two recent agreements that endorsed the three-step U.N. plan to beef up the beleaguered 7,000-strong African Union force in Darfur.

Annan emerged from Wednesday's council meeting telling reporters that "the president has accepted the three-phased approach as a package," and that council members "are encouraged by the positive tone" of al-Bashir's letter.

In a press statement later, the council welcomed al-Bashir's letter in which he reconfirmed his commitment to peace efforts approved in recent international meetings in Ethiopia and Nigeria.

Annan told reporters the first phase of the U.N. package was already being implemented "and we're going to accelerate that -- and, of course, that's a way of testing the government's willingness to cooperate."

It would add 105 military officers, 33 U.N. police, 48 international staffers, 36 armored personnel carriers to the African Union force, according to a U.N. report last month.

A second, larger support package would include the deployment of several hundred U.N. military, police and civilian personnel to the African Union mission. The third phase is the deployment of the hybrid force.

‘An overwhelming number’
Abdalhaleem said that under the Darfur Peace Agreement the government and one rebel group signed in May, a 20,000-strong force from the government and former rebels will be created. That force plus 7,000 troops from the AU will provide "an overwhelming number" that can ensure security, he said.

In Khartoum, the Sudanese government confirmed it was permitting the first U.N. experts to head to Darfur. But the numbers it gave were lower than those mentioned by the U.N.

Sadeq Al-Magli, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said 18 military experts and 20 policemen would soon head to Al Fasher, capital of North Darfur.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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