UNITED NATIONS, Sep 21 (Reuters) The United Nations and the African Union kicked off a high-level meeting on Darfur today in hopes of speeding up deployment of a peacekeeping force and expanding humanitarian aid.
Ministers or their deputies from 26 nations are attending the late today session chaired by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and African Union Chairman Alpha Oumar Konare.
Beneath lofty goals, UN officials are worried that not enough countries with specialized skills have offered troops for the 26,000-strong joint UN-AU force in Sudan's west where four years of conflict have caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and uprooted 2.5 million people.
And among those countries that have made offers, Konare has objected to non-African infantry soldiers, including those from Uruguay, Thailand and Norway.
Delegates attending include the foreign ministers of Sudan and Egypt, Lam Akol and Ahmed Aboul Gheit, respectively, along with foreign ministers or their deputies of a dozen African nations.
The permanent UN Security Council members are represented by US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, FrenchForeign Minister Bernard Kouchner, Britain's Minister of State for Africa Mark Malloch Brown, China's Assistant Foreign Minister Zhai Jun and Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin.
Touching on the conflict, US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters, ''We understand that the character of the force has to be African but (it's) a UN-AU force,'' with UN member states footing the bill.
''It has been understood from the beginning that there will be complementary non-African forces and capabilities available to complement the predominantly African character'' of the force,'' Khalilzad said yesterday.
''But I think right now the African Union secretariat needs to move,'' he added.
PEACE TALKS The agenda also includes a report from UN and AU mediators of peace talks between the Sudan government and rebel groups, scheduled for Libya on October. 27, in hopes of establishing a cease-fire before the planned force is fully deployed.
The conference would seek to end a conflict that has generated one of the world's worst humanitarian crises and sparked US accusations -- dismissed by Sudan -- of genocide. Much of the killing, rape and looting has been blamed on a government-allied militia known as the Janjaweed.
One item not on the agenda is how to get Sudan to turn over two men charged by the International Court with war crimes and crimes against humanity. Khartoum has refused to do so.
''I am concerned that the silence by most states and international organizations on the subject of the arrest warrants has been understood in Khartoum as a weakening of international resolve,'' Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the court's prosecutor told a news conference yesterday.
''Justice in Darfur must be on the agenda, at the top of the agenda,'' he said, adding that one of those charged, Ahmad Harun, was now a senior official for humanitarian affairs.
Moreno-Ocampo noted the recent resurgence of violence around Darfur camps for displaced people and said he had ''reasons to believe that it is an operation in which Ahmad Harun plays a key role.'' REUTERS AK PM0240