UNITED NATIONS – The United States is pushing for an expanded African Union (search) force to monitor the cease-fire in Sudan's troubled Darfur (search) region and will support sanctions against Khartoum if the government resists, U.S. Ambassador John Danforth (search ) said.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday, Danforth said Washington believes the most effective way to improve security for the 1.2 million Sudanese who have fled their homes to escape attacks by government-backed Arab militias is to increase the presence of outsiders in Darfur.
"So I think the big push now is to push the presence of outsiders, mainly the AU, as monitors," he said. "And if the government resists that, then in my view the United States will have been given no choice but to support sanctions."
The 53-nation African Union currently has 80 observers in Darfur, protected by 150 Rwandan soldiers, to monitor the rarely observed cease-fire signed in April. It has proposed sending nearly 2,000 peacekeepers, an offer strongly supported by the United States but initially rejected by the Sudanese government.
At African Union-brokered peace talks in Abuja, Nigeria, on Wednesday, Sudanese Agriculture Minister Majzoub al-Khalifa Ahmad, who heads the government delegation, modified the country's rejection. He said the government had no objections to an AU force used solely to usher rebels off the battlefield and into their barracks.
Danforth, a former Missouri senator who was the U.S. point man on Sudan before he became the U.N. ambassador last month, didn't comment directly on Ahmad's offer. But it clearly didn't go as far as the United States and other Security Council members want, which is an expanded and highly visible force on the ground monitoring government, rebel and militia activity.
The United Nations says Darfur has become the scene of the world's worst humanitarian crisis since African rebels rose against the government in February 2003, claiming discrimination in the distribution of scarce resources.
International rights groups have accused the Sudanese government of arming Arab militias known as the Janjaweed (search ) to crush the revolt — an accusation it denies, although last week it acknowledged it has "control" over some fighters.
A resolution adopted by the U.N. Security Council on July 30 gave the government 30 days to demonstrate that it was taking action to rein in the Janjaweed and improve security and humanitarian access.
The Sudanese agriculture minister, however, said Thursday that his country will not be swayed by international pressure.
"We aren't bothered by the U.N. deadline at all. It never crossed our mind. We are working towards our duties for our people," al-Khalifa Ahmad said in Abuja. "We are a dignified people, not like other people and we will never compromise our national interests to that of any interest anywhere in the world."
Secretary-General Kofi Annan is expected to deliver a written report on Sudan's compliance by Aug. 30 and the top U.N. envoy to Sudan, Jan Pronk, will deliver his assessment to the council on Sept. 2.
U.N. officials fanned out across Darfur's three states for a first-hand look at the government's efforts.
"This is an objective verification and the U.N.'s mind has not been made up," deputy humanitarian coordinator Erick De Mul told the AP shortly after arriving in the North Darfur town of Al Fasher.
Pronk was leading a U.N. team focusing on West Darfur, while U.N. deputy special representative Manuel Aranda Da Silva was assigned to South Darfur.
In an interim assessment Tuesday, Assistant Secretary-General Tuliameni Kalomoh told the council that the United Nations continues to receive reports of attacks by the Janjaweed and of looting and harassment by men in uniform. But he said the government has improved humanitarian access and was cooperating in setting up safe havens for the displaced, council diplomats said.
Danforth said humanitarian access was better though it's "still not perfect" but "the security problem remains" even though the number and intensity of attacks may have dropped since the resolution was adopted.
The resolution threatened punitive economic and diplomatic measures if Khartoum didn't move quickly. But Britain's Foreign Office said Friday a majority of Security Council members oppose immediate heavy sanctions if Sudan fails to quell the violence, which has killed up to 30,000, by U.S. estimates.
Danforth said "the key is not imposing sanctions" but to save the lives of the people in Darfur.