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US Signals Flexibility on Darfur Peace Force

The United States signaled flexibility Thursday on the shape of a new international peacekeeping force for Darfur. The Sudanese government has adamantly opposed the introduction of a United Nations force for the war-torn western region.

The Bush administration had long been pressing for deployment of a full-fledged blue-hatted United Nations peacekeeping mission for Darfur.

But it is now signaling its willingness to consider modifications in order to help overcome the Khartoum government's adamant opposition to a U.N. force.

The U.N. Security Council approved the peacekeeping mission August 31 to help implement the Darfur peace accord reached in May, and to build on the African Union observer mission in the region which has been plagued by financial and logistical problems.

Though the Khartoum government of President Omar el-Bashir initially indicated it would accept a U.N. force for Darfur, it later balked at the idea - saying its introduction would be tantamount to an invasion or the re-colonization of Sudan.

To get around Sudanese objections, U.N. diplomats are now reported considering a so-called hybrid force made up mainly of African troops but getting communications gear and logistical support through the United Nations.

Asked about the idea at a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States is open to alternate proposals for a force that would meet the objectives of the Security Council and actually be deployable.

He said, "We're looking at a variety of different options. But none of this compromises, nothing that we might do or might propose, would in any way compromise, in our view, the effectiveness of this force. It has to be an effective, capable force that has all the capabilities that you need, as well as a reliable source of funding."

The force envisioned in Security Council resolution 1706 would be three times as large as the present A.U. mission, which has seven thousand troops and is authorized to be in place only until the end of the year.

McCormack made clear that the United States, while not offering troops for Darfur peacekeeping, is willing to continue heavily underwriting such operations, which he said are critically needed.

On a related issue, the U.S. spokesman welcomed a reported offer by the Khartoum government Thursday to begin unconditional talks with the National Redemption Front, a Darfur rebel group that has refused to accept the May 5 peace agreement.

That accord, concluded in the Nigerian capital Abuja with U.S. mediation help, was signed by only one faction of another Darfur rebel group, the Sudan Liberation Movement, and has failed to stop the violence in the vast western Sudanese region.

The conflict erupted in 2003 when Darfur rebels took up arms against the Sudanese government. Authorities in Khartoum responded by backing Arab militias in a scorched-earth campaign against the rebels and their perceived supporters.

The United Nations estimates that the war has led to the deaths of more than 200,000 people and displaced more than two million.