Arab diplomats say Sudan rejects offer for peacekeepers
CAIRO, Egypt -- Arab countries have launched a new effort to push Sudan toward a compromise over U.N. peacekeepers for Darfur, offering to dispatch a force of Arab and Muslim troops to the troubled region, diplomats said Sunday.
The Arab League diplomats said Sudan's president rejected the initial proposal -- as he has all suggestions of a U.N.-affiliated contingent, regardless of the makeup -- but promised to suggest an alternative soon, in a sign that the Arab effort might show more promise than Western attempts to stop the humanitarian crisis.
"The situation is deteriorating and needs intervention," said Hesham Youssef, a top aide to the league's secretary-general, Amr Moussa.
But Youssef said the Arab negotiators believed the world community and the United States should also be flexible.
"The Americans should realize that there should be a compromise," he said.
The new push could be a significant step in the stalled effort to reach a compromise over Sudan's rejection of an August Security Council resolution that would let the United Nations to take control of and significantly expand a peacekeeping force in the western Darfur region, run so far by the African Union.
The two sides are still far apart, however. And it was unclear how much leverage the Arab countries -- close neighbors and supporters of Sudan's Arab-dominated regime -- have or how strongly they intended to press.
At least 200,000 people have died and some 2 million have been displaced since the start of a 2003 revolt by rebels from Darfur's ethnic African population. The Sudanese government is alleged to have responded by unleashing militias known as the janjaweed against villagers.
Fears the tensions could spread were highlighted this weekend when Sudanese soldiers crossed the border into eastern Chad to fight a group of Darfur rebels, leaving more than 300 people injured, an aid worker said Sunday, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to divulge information to the media.
Chadian government spokesman Hourmadji Moussa Doumgor said he had no information about the battle.
Moussa carried the proposal for Arab peacekeepers to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in Khartoum in recent days, said diplomats who accompanied the Arab League chief.
The United States has asked its moderate Arab allies like Egypt to take a greater role on Darfur, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice making it a key mission of her Mideast trip last week.
Moussa proposed that Sudan accept thousands of troops from Arab and Muslim countries, at first to join the current African Union peacekeepers, with the possibility that they could later shift under a U.N. mandate, the diplomats said.
Samir Hosny, who heads the African section of the Cairo-based Arab League, said al-Bashir was still opposed to U.N. peacekeepers -- even Arab ones -- but promised to come back with a counterproposal.
"He (al-Bashir) said he will make an initiative soon," Hosny said.
Youssef told The Associated Press he expected the counterproposal "within days."
"We expect that the ideas will be closer to what is being circulated," Youssef said.
Some analysts have said they believe Arab countries will be loathe to press too hard unless the United States makes progress on other issues important to them, such as Israeli-Arab peace efforts.
Another possible negotiator, China, is believed to have strong leverage with Sudan because it is Sudan's main oil partner. But China so far has indicated it believes Sudan has the right to keep the peacekeepers out.
Sudan's government had no immediate comment. In the past, it has accused "crusaders" from the West of trying to take over the country, and al-Bashir has repeatedly said the force would be neocolonialists and violators of Sudanese sovereignty.
However, he also has said in recent days that he would accept U.N. advisers to the current AU force as a possible compromise.
The latest Arab efforts came after Rice, on a trip last week to the Mideast, emerged from a meeting with eight Arab foreign ministers in Cairo and pleaded for the world to persuade Sudan to accept U.N. peacekeepers.
Arab states -- which had earlier expressed reservations about pressuring Sudan -- immediately made a more public push on their neighbor.
On Saturday, for example, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahemd Aboul Gheit signaled to Sudan that it was time to show flexibility.
"The international community has concerns that thousands more of the Sudanese people in Darfur will fall victims," he told Egyptian state television.
African-Arab nations such as Algeria, Egypt and Mauritania already have small contingents operating in Darfur with the African Union peacekeepers.
There have been past efforts to put together an Arab peacekeeping force in various conflicts, including persistent thoughts of doing so in Iraq, but none have come to fruition.