Officials at NATO headquarters, and in NATO capitals across Europe and North America, are considering a request from the African Union to put western trainers into African military units that are trying to establish security in Sudan's Darfur region.
NATO Secretary General Jaap de hoop Scheffer said the request to expand NATO's involvement in Darfur arrived in time to be discussed Thursday during the NATO defense ministers meeting.
"That is a positive reaction to what has been discussed in the North Atlantic Council, and we are now moving on with this." Scheffer says.
The head of NATO's Strategic Direction Center, British Colonel David Short is to put together a detailed mission plan, if NATO leaders approve the African request.
"To me, this latest letter from the African Union is beginning to open a new chapter, if you like, in terms of NATO's engagement," Short says.
Colonel Short says the A.U. request asks NATO to continue its current support for the Union's mission in Darfur - flying troops in and out of the region, helping with training and providing a liaison officer at the mission headquarters. But he says it also includes new requests, including the one involving NATO trainers working in Darfur in the A.U. units that have been deployed.
"Could you look at, further, these sort of 'on the job' capacity building activities? By this, we are talking, potentially, about assisting units on the ground," Short says. "But, I would hasten to say that is very much something which needs further discussion and reconnaissance."
Colonel Short says the A.U. request also asks NATO to expand its training of senior African officers, and to help establish a system for certifying that military units from the various countries are fully qualified to participate in the organization's military activities.
No NATO official can say whether or when the alliance might expand its Darfur mission, as requested. But Colonel Short says the groundwork has been laid for the political decision and the potential military deployments.
"I would not be held to a specific length of time, but because NATO and the North Atlantic Council have been warmed up to these as potential options - because, clearly, we have always tried to forward plan and anticipate what might come in - we have prepared work that can be launched very quickly," Short says.
Years of violence involving militia groups and attacks on civilians have killed hundreds of thousands of people. The U.S. government and others have labeled it genocide. A peace accord reached last month has contributed to an increase in violence, as all groups have not accepted it.
The U.N. Security Council has agreed to take over the African Union military effort in Darfur, but Sudan's government has not accepted the plan. A local leader told VOA on Friday, after meeting with a UN delegation, that the people will not accept troops from outside of Africa. A U.N. force could include both African and non-African troops, including possibly some from NATO countries.
But at NATO military headquarters, Colonel Short says there is no plan for the alliance to organize forces to go to Darfur in large numbers to confront the militias themselves.
He says training teams that may work with the deployed African forces would be small, and the African Union Mission in Sudan, known as AMIS, would still be responsible for trying to restore order in the region.
"The key principle for the AMIS mission is that the Africans are looking for African solutions for African problems. They must remain in the lead. And NATO, who are just one of the partners, are there in support," Short says.
Colonel Short and other officials say NATO will have to ask member nations to provide troops and equipment for the additional Darfur missions. NATO has a new Reaction Force standing by to respond to emergencies, but officials say the training and other services being requested by the African Union are not the type of mission the Force was created to handle.