Members of Congress are urging stronger U.S. action to quell violence in Sudan's Darfur region. A top State Department official appeared at a hearing on Capitol Hill Wednesday to discuss what the Bush administration is doing to support African peacekeeping efforts.

U.S. legislators have made clear what they think needs to be done to stop killing in Darfur, and one of the items at the top of the list is more American support for an expanded African Union peacekeeping force.

Robert Zoellick is welcomed by an African Union soldier as he arrives in Northern Darfur region's administrative capital El Fasher (file)
Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick says the administration is committed to strengthening the AU force, while continuing to work to help Sudan resolve its long-standing ethnic and political divisions.

"A key component which many of you refer to is the need to expand the AU mission. You have just gotten the AU security forces up to about 2,700," Mr. Zoellick said. "Over the course of this year we have urged them [and] they have agreed to expand to 7,700. There is some discussion among the African Union about possibly going up to a higher number, they have referred to 12,000, but frankly each of [these steps] take work."

Mr. Zoellick said the United States has carried most of the weight of assisting peacekeeping efforts in Darfur, for example through airlifting Rwandan members of the AU force and constructing facilities for them.

The United States has provided hundreds of millions of dollars for humanitarian needs in Darfur and neighboring Chad, including refugee assistance, support for African Union troops, and to help implement the North-South agreement between Khartoum and southern rebels.

Congressman Tom Lantos, the top Democrat on the committee, has been recommending for some time that the United States persuade NATO to get involved in Darfur.

 "Has the administration considered the possibility of calling a NATO emergency session to call on our NATO allies, particularly the ones who have no forces in the two main areas [Iraq and Afghanistan] where we are currently committed, so that an interim major NATO force could be put in place to prevent what we correctly called genocide," he said.

Mr. Zoellick says obtaining a NATO agreement to put forces on the ground in Darfur would be difficult, adding that time must be given for an African solution to work.

Wednesday's hearing provided another opportunity for some lawmakers to voice concern about a visit to Washington in April by Sudan's intelligence chief.

Administration officials have said the visit by Salah Abdallah Gosh was necessary as part of ongoing intelligence consultations with Sudan involving the war on terrorism. But to some members of Congress, this sent the wrong signal about U.S. intentions to put an end to killing in Darfur.

Congressman Donald Payne was more blunt in denouncing the visit last May.

"A person who leads the killing, who instructs the Janjaweed [Arab militia]), who has blood on his hands, who allows rape to go on, who condones killing of children, burning of villages, bombing of cities, he was flown to Washington, D.C. to meet with our State Department and CIA officials. It's a disgrace," Mr

.Payne said.

Mr. Zoellick Wednesday said such contacts provide another opportunity for the United States to drive home points about the need for cooperation on Darfur.

"When the [Sudan] intelligence official came to the United States, we coordinated with the [U.S.] intelligence agencies," Mr. Zoellick said. "The State Department actually saw the intelligence official, and we coordinated with our intelligence officials to drive home the message that counter-terrorism cooperation was not enough, that we had to action on Darfur, and the implementation of the North-South agreement."

Congressman Payne told VOA Wednesday that, although he has no direct evidence regarding the role Mr. Gosh may have played in Darfur, "everything leads" to him having been involved.

The chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Congressman Henry Hyde, said Sudan's "reported cooperation" in the war on terrorism should not outweigh the issues of Darfur or the need to see the North-South Sudan agreement succeed.