Sudan has agreed to allow U.N. helicopter gunships into Darfur as part of a support package for African Union peacekeeping operations in the troubled region. VOA's correspondent at the U.N. Peter Heinlein reports the agreement clears the way for the initial deployment of 3,000 U.N. soldiers and police.

Sudan officially notified the United Nations Monday that it accepts phase two of a three-phase plan that would eventually lead to the establishment of a 20,000 -strong U.N. - AU peacekeeping force in Darfur.

The notification came in a letter to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon from Sudan's U.N. Ambassador Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem.

Sudanese officials had earlier objected to including six attack helicopters to back up an initial force of 3,000 U.N. troops and police who will be sent to reinforce a badly understaffed 7,000 - strong African Union force. But the Sudanese ambassador's letter specified acceptance of the helicopter component.

U.N. Spokeswoman Michele Montas said Secretary-General Ban was satisfied with Sudan's response.

"The Security Council today received a letter from the Sudanese government about the heavy support package for Darfur indicating Sudan's approval of the helicopters component of that plan," said Michele Montas. "Earlier the secretary general had said of the reported acceptance of the heavy support package by the Sudanese government, 'it's a good sign'."

Montas said the secretary-general had met Monday with his special envoys to the region, as well as with the secretary-General of the African Union Commission, Alpha Oumar Konare.

Agreement on the three-phase peacekeeping plan was reached last November in Ethiopia. But Sudan later appeared to go back on the deal.

A torrent of diplomatic activity resulted in Khartoum's agreement last week to accept the broad outlines of the plan but Sudanese officials continued to object to the helicopters. It was not immediately known what prompted the change, but it coincided with a visit to Khartoum by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, who later traveled to Chad.

Asked about Sudan's acceptance of the helicopters, a U.S. State Department spokesman in Washington called it a partial step forward. However, the spokesman said there are still other elements and caveats that remain, in particular dealing with the command and control of the combined force.

Before leaving Khartoum Monday, Negroponte accused Sudan's government of actively supporting Arab militias known as Janjaweed that are blamed for carrying out a deliberate campaign of intimidation in Darfur.