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AU Meets to Consider Increasing Troops in Darfur

The African Union (AU) is discussing the possible expansion of its mission in the war-torn Darfur region of western Sudan.

African Union members, the United States, the United Nations, and the European Union are among those calling for a greater African Union presence in Darfur.

Officials attending the meeting are expected to recommend that the African Union double its troop size to about 6,000 from the more than 3,000 scheduled to be deployed by the end of May.

According to the Associated Press, an internal assessment says that the African Union might need to quadruple its peacekeeping force to 12,000 to bring order to the area, while admitting that the force is already "extremely stretched."

There are currently 2,200 AU troops in the volatile area.

Earlier this week the U.N. refugee agency expressed concern that a militia believed to be allied to the government is resuming its campaign to burn villages. The refugee agency reports that late last year, the janjaweed militia had torched about 55 villages that had been abandoned by people fleeing the violence.

A spokeswoman for the refugee agency, Kitty McKinsey, was recently in Darfur and says the janjaweed are at it again.

"What we have seen since last October is that the janjaweed, having previously driven people from their homes, are now going back and burning the village," she said. "And the people from the villages that have been burned in west Darfur take this as a signal that they should never return, that this is a signal not to try to come back and pick up their possessions, not to try to come back and start farming again, and certainly not to ever try to come back and live there."

Ms. McKinsey says African Union troops are well respected by the people and often accompany women out of internally displaced persons camps to collect firewood and perform other errands. Otherwise, says Ms. McKinsey, these women could be raped and attacked.

The Darfur conflict, which broke out in early 2003, has claimed tens of thousands of lives and has displaced more than 1.5 million people.