Sudan on Monday gave the AU a one-week ultimatum to accept a deal that would block the proposed 20,000-member U.N. peacekeeping force in Darfur or else leave the region, a step that would likely worsen the world's worst humanitarian disaster.
The AU force, which is under-funded and inadequately staffed, has struggled to keep stability amid a surge of recent violence. Its mandate expires Sept. 30 and the United Nations wants to deploy a much larger force with a stronger mandate to stop the fighting in the remote western region.
On Aug. 28, Khartoum launched a major new offensive in Darfur, reportedly involving thousands of troops and militias backed by bomber aircraft and is believed to be massing more forces in the region.
At an emergency meeting Monday in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, African diplomats agreed that the AU peacekeepers could stay on for a few months if Khartoum approved the transition to a U.N-led force, said spokesman Nouredinne Mezni.
"We are ready to review the mandate in the event that Sudan and the U.N. agree on the transition to a U.N. peacekeeping force," he said, explaining that the AU troops could remain until January to give the U.N. time to assemble its replacement force.
African foreign ministers will meet in New York on Sept. 18 on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly to discuss the crisis, Mezni said.
The removal of the 7,000 AU peacekeepers in Darfur would raise the prospect of more violence in the region, where 200,000 have been killed and 2.5 million displaced since 2003. Five million people live in the region.
Annan criticized Sudan's call for the departure of the African peacekeepers and expressed concern at Khartoum's refusal to accept the U.N. force. He warned that Sudan would be unable to address the humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur.
"I know that yesterday an important decision was taken by the Sudanese government, which I don't consider initially positive," Annan said, speaking in the port city of Alexandria after a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
"The international community has been feeding about 3 million people in camps and if we have to leave because of lack of security, lack of access to the people, then what happens? The government will have to assume responsibility for doing this and if it doesn't succeed, it will have lots of questions to answer before the rest of the world," he said.
"I've always said that international forces will go there to help the Sudanese people, to help the government protect the people. We're not going to invade," said Annan.
Last week, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution that would put the AU force under U.N. authority, pending Khartoum's consent. Sudan promptly rejected the resolution.