updated 9/22/2007 1:05:00 AM ET 2007-09-22T05:05:00

Sudan insisted Friday that African countries have offered enough troops for a peacekeeping force in Darfur despite U.N. concerns that the mission will not be effective without specialized contributions from outside the continent.

Foreign ministers and other top diplomats from 26 countries met at the United Nations to promote an agreement on the composition of the 26,000-member peacekeeping force, and give political momentum to Oct. 27 peace talks in Libya between Darfur’s rebels and the Sudanese government.

With one influential rebel leader refusing to attend the negotiations, diplomats warned there would be consequences for any side that decides to boycott. U.S. Deputy of State John Negroponte raised the possibility of sanctions against rebel leaders who stay out of the peace process.

Sudan agreed to the deployment of the joint U.N.-African Union force after months of international pressure and painstaking negotiations, which ended with a pledge that the force would be predominantly African.

Some troops may be turned away
Sudanese Foreign Minister Lam Akol said so many African countries had offered troops that some may be turned down. He insisted there was no need to consider troop offers from other countries, such as Thailand and Uruguay.

“The African countries have supplied more than enough troops. Actually 190 percent of what is required, so there is no problem in that respect,” Sudanese Foreign Minister Lam Akol told reporters after the three-hour meeting. “What is needed is the support in terms of funding and logistics.”

U.N. diplomats, however, say there is concern that African forces alone may not meet U.N. technical standards for peacekeeping missions. The joint AU-UN force is meant to replace a beleaguered 7,000-member African Union force that has been unable to stop the bloodshed in Darfur, a vast western Sudanese region where more than 200,000 people have died in 4¼ years of fighting.

Negroponte urged Sudan to be open to non-African contributions.

“We don’t think Sudan has anything to be afraid of with respect to allowing, agreeing to, some of these non-African specialized, niche forces, to participate in generating the peacekeeping force,” he told reporters.

During the closed meeting, Negroponte commended contribution offers from China and Uruguay, as well as Nigeria and Rwanda, according to a transcript of his speech.

Force needs specialized equipment
Earlier this week, U.N. Undersecretary-General for Peacekeeping Jean-Marie Guehenno said the force needs specialized aviation, transport and logistical units not available in Africa.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and African Union Chairman Alpha Oumar Konare, who co-chaired the meeting, both downplayed any differences on the composition of the peacekeeping force, saying they were technical in nature.

“This issue should not be viewed as some difference on political issues,” Ban said. “These kinds of technical issues will be able to resolved through technical discussion.”

Konare sidestepped questions about whether the AU had objected to troop offers from outside Africa, saying only that “we have sufficient offers on all fronts” and they would be evaluated.

Peace talks urged
Diplomats also stressed the need for all of Darfur’s fragmented rebel groups to sit down with the Sudanese government. Only one rebel group signed the Darfur Peace Agreement in 2006, and fighting has persisted.

One prominent rebel chief, Abdul Wahid Nur, has rebuffed appeals from the United States and France to join negotiations in Libya, insisting Darfur must first be completely pacified and the U.N. peacekeepers deployed.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner warned that Nur — who lives in France — could find his influence among Darfurians eroded because of his decision to boycott the talks.

“What I fear, because I like Abdul Wahid, is that the people around him will represent everyone and he will end up representing no one. I have told him that 10,000 times,” Kouchner said.

Ethnic African rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated government in 2003, accusing it of discrimination and neglect. The government has been accused of backing Arab militias responsible for many of the conflict’s atrocities, though it denies the charges.

New fighting broke out this week despite the government’s pledge to commit to a halt in hostilities in the run-up to the Libya talks.

Rebels and aid workers said the Sudanese air force bombed three villages, killing a 12-year-old boy and injuring two other people. One rebel faction claimed it overran an army garrison in the central Jebel Marra mountains on Thursday, killing more than a dozen troops.

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