China had 'unique role' in Darfur peace bid -envoy

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UNITED NATIONS, Sep 12 (Reuters) China's Darfur envoy said on Tuesday Beijing had played a ''unique role'' in efforts to bring peace to the Sudanese region and defended its policy of economic ties with Sudan without political strings.

Although China has been criticized for watering down UN resolutions on Darfur, Liu Guijin said it backed the world body's approach that will culminate in the dispatch of a ''hybrid'' 26,000-strong U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force.

''The Chinese side has made a huge effort,'' Liu told a news conference yesterday. ''Particularly on the hybrid peacekeeping operation the Chinese side has utilized all kinds of channels and talked to the Sudanese government and persuaded them as an equal partner to accept the ... plan.'' ''On the resolution of the Darfur issue, we have played a very constructive and even unique role,'' he said, speaking through an interpreter.

''We say that ... if you only utilize the exertion of pressure, sanctions, and even military power, that is not conducive to the settlement of the issue.'' China is to send more than 300 engineering troops to Darfur next month to help prepare for the peacekeeping force.

China, however, has been seen as the main opponent on the UN Security Council of the argument by Western countries that sanctions should be held in the background to force Khartoum to comply with peace moves.

Liu was speaking after UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced in Khartoum last week that Sudan's government and rebel groups from Darfur would start peace talks on October 27.

International experts estimate some 200,000 have died and over 2 million have been driven from their homes during 4-1/2 years of fighting in Darfur. Sudan puts the death toll from the conflict at just 9,000.

In New York, the Chinese envoy has met top UN political and peacekeeping officials. Last week he met US lawmakers and pressure groups in Washington over threats that China's Sudan policy could affect next year's Beijing Olympic Games.

Asked about Beijing's provision of assistance without political conditions, Liu said this was its standard policy towards what it considers fellow developing nations.

Energy-hungry China is a major investor in Sudan's oil industry at a time when Western majors are holding back because of Darfur, but Liu described oil ties between the two countries as ''transparent, mutually beneficial and non-exclusive''.

To say that China's oil exploration in Sudan was tantamount ''to supporting the Sudanese government to kill people in Darfur is not justified,'' he said.

Reuters TB VP0428

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