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Human Rights Groups Call for Arab League Action on Darfur

Sixteen human rights groups from the Arab world and the West are calling for the Arab League to endorse plans for a U.N. peacekeeping force in Sudan's Darfur region. The plea comes as Arab leaders gather for a two-day Arab League summit in Khartoum.

Human-rights groups want the Arab League to pressure Sudan to endorse the deployment of U.N. troops in its war-torn Darfur region.

The League of Arab States goes into its annual summit Tuesday, which will be held in Khartoum for the first time since 1967, amid heavy international tension over Darfur.

The African Union has seven-thousand peacekeepers in Darfur, but A.U. leaders have agreed to turn over peacekeeping duties to the United Nations, which can provide a larger and better-funded force. The African Union voted to extend the current peacekeepers' mandate by six months, hoping to win Sudan's approval for the transfer.

But Khartoum opposes the change, and has been lobbying its Arab neighbors for support.

Fadi Al-Qadi is the Cairo-based representative of Human Rights Watch. He says it looks at this point like the Arab League will not support the transition to a U.N. force over the objections of Khartoum.

"The signals we gathered yesterday, what we have been hearing from the Arab League is not promising at all. It is disappointing, unfortunate," Al-Qadi says. "We were hoping that the Arab League would be supportive of the protection of civilians in Darfur."

Human Rights Watch and 15 other advocacy groups, most from Arab states including Egypt, Lebanon and Yemen, have issued a statement urging the Arab League to take action on Darfur. They are calling for Arab leaders to endorse the turnover to U.N. troops, and also to condemn the human-rights violations they say are committed by rebel groups, the Sudanese government troops, and government-backed militias in Darfur.

Al-Qadi says Arab leaders should overrule Khartoum in favor of human rights.

"... we hope that at least this time, that the Arab League would use this momentum to clearly condemn the atrocities that are taking place in Darfur, and to pressure the Sudanese government to accept this transition in a broader scheme and plan to help facilitate the larger protection for civilians in Darfur," Al-Qadi says.

The crisis in Darfur is not the only thorny issue on the table at the Arab League summit. Arab leaders will also be dealing with the Iranian nuclear program and the war in Iraq, as well as the new Palestinian government being formed by the Islamic militant group Hamas.

Finally, they will have to address the tension between Syria and Lebanon after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri more than a year ago. Reports from Beirut indicate that Lebanon is sending both its pro-Syrian president and its anti-Syrian prime minister to the meeting.