The African Union said Tuesday its troops will leave Darfur by the end of the month unless Sudan drops its opposition to the deployment of U.N. peacekeepers, and U.N. chief Kofi Annan warned Khartoum it bears full responsibility for the ensuing plight of civilians if it rejects outside help.
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.
On Monday, Sudan went a step further. Foreign Minister Ali Ahmed Kerti said the AU forces can remain in the country only 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.
The AU force presumably would be far less independent if its funding came from Sudan — which it is policing — and from Sudan's Arab allies.
Many observers believe Sudan has dug in against a U.N. deployment in the vast 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 demands that Sudan let in the U.N. troops, which still must be assembled at a time when the world body is putting together a peacekeeping force for south Lebanon. Sweden and Norway said Monday they were prepared to contribute to a Darfur force.
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."
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, a charge that Khartoum denies.
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 more deaths if aid operations collapse. Twelve aid workers have been killed in Darfur this year, most in the last two months.
But 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 Qaeda 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 are deployed.