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U.N.-Sudan Meeting to Highlight African Summit

SCOTT SIMON, host:

The crisis in Darfur is expected to be a key issue on the agenda when the African Union holds its summit early next week. Sudan has blocked the idea of having United Nations take over from a beleaguered African Union force in Darfur. Diplomats are still trying to pin down Sudan and exactly what sort of peacekeeping force it will accept to end a conflict the United States has labeled genocide. And much to the dismay of human rights activists, Sudan is actually seeking to chair the African Union. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: A top foreign ministry official knows his country has an image problem here. Activists regularly take out full-page newspaper ads condemning genocide in Darfur. But Mutrif Siddiq says the situation is more complex. His government can't simply disarm militias accused of attacking civilians, he argues, because rebels are still holding on to their arms. And as for his country's bid to chair the African Union, he says there are no rules against it.

Mr. MUTRIF SIDDIQ (Foreign Ministry, Sudan): No country in Africa is clean and perfect and have no problems. There are problems to say that this country should be denied the opportunity and the other one should be rewarded by having to preside this organization or that one. We feel that any country in the world, including your country here, is having problems.

KELEMEN: It was an argument that did not go over well with Georgette Gagnon of Human Rights Watch. She says Sudan has been prevented twice already from becoming the chair of the African Union because of the conflict in Darfur, which she says is only getting worse.

Ms. GEORGETTE GAGNON (Human Rights Watch): There's been continuing bombing of civilians, increased offensives, continued sexual violence against women and girls throughout Darfur.

KELEMEN: The African Union recently confirmed Sudanese air force attacks on villages in Darfur, in violation of a cease-fire agreement. Sudan claimed to be going after rebels, but the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Jendayi Frazer, rejected that explanation.

Ms. JENDAYI FRAZER (U.S. Assistant Secretary of State): There is no justification for the attacks against innocent civilians in Darfur. And so this behavior doesn't surprise us. It is behavior that we as an international community need to work together to stop.

KELEMEN: The U.S. envoy to Sudan, Andrew Natsios, had given Sudan a January 1st deadline to agree to let the United Nations help run the African Union force in Darfur to protect civilians. He said if not, the U.S. would move to an unspecified plan B. The Sudanese official Mutrif Siddiq says he hasn't noticed any change in the U.S. approach since that deadline came and went. And he said there's no change in Sudan's policy. The U.N. can offer some support, but the troops have to be African.

Mr. SIDDIQ: The commander of the force is going to be from Africa, the stem of the force is going to be from Africa. And the support is coming from there in the form of personnel, in the form of strategic support and in form of financial support. It's very clear.

KELEMEN: The U.N. though, has been seeking more clarification. Gagnon of Human Rights Watch says all eyes will be on the new U.N. secretary general who's going to the AU Summit on Monday.

Ms. GAGNON: Ban Ki-moon has said Darfur is his number one priority; however, he can't be Mr. Nice Guy with the Sudanese government. He has to be very tough and very clear on what the Sudanese government needs to do and then push U.N. Security Council members to take very tough action against the government should it fail to accept this full AU-UN hybrid force.

KELEMEN: A force which was already a compromise from the original plan by the Security Council to send in some 20,000 U.N. troops to Darfur. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.