Sudan leader rules out non-African troops in Darfur

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KHARTOUM, Nov 23 (Reuters) Sudan's president today said he would not accept non-African troops in a combined United Nations/African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur, apart from Chinese and Pakistani technical units already committed.

It was the strongest public statement yet of Sudan's resistance to outside involvement in the war-torn region -- a stance that many in the UN see as a delaying tactic to undermine the peacekeeping mission.

The 26,000 ''hybrid'' UN and AU peacekeepers are supposed to start operating in Darfur from January and bring security to its people after more than 4-1/2 years of conflict.

At a news conference, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir said his original agreement with the AU and the UN was for a force made up of African troops, backed up from logistics and technical units from the UN.

Speaking through a translator, Bashir said: ''When they told us that they wanted to bring other troops from other countries, we rejected them.'' Offers from all other non-African countries, apart from China and Pakistan, had also come in ''too late'', after Sudan had signed its agreement with the U.N. and the AU over the force.

''These Swedish and Norwegian troops are not acceptable. We shall not accept them,'' said Bashir.

Speaking about a proposed Thai infantry battalion, Bashir added: ''Even if there is a shortage of troops from the African continent, we are not going to accept those people. Because we were not consulted about it.'' NO BLUE HELMETS? Bashir said the incoming peacekeepers would have to be led by an African wearing an African Union helmet. It had been widely expected that the peacekeepers would switch to blue UN helmets in January when they replace a struggling 7,000-strong AU force currently on the ground.

If Sudan sticks to its refusal, it would rule out a special forces unit offered by Nepal and a force of camel-mounted fighters that the UN has reportedly asked India to supply.

UN negotiators say they have not yet had any concrete refusal from Sudan on non-African troops, just a constant request for more technical discussions. But Bashir's speech was a clear rejection of further outside involvement.

Bashir denied that Sudan was setting out to delay the deployment of the hybrid operation.

''The ones who are hindering the process are those who are trying to impose their agenda on us. If there is any delay in the issue it is from the United Nations and those who are standing behind the United Nations,'' he said.

UN peacekeeping chief Jean-Marie Guehenno last week warned the peacekeeping force could fail unless Sudan relaxed its opposition to non-African troops and the international community came up with more specialized units.

No country has yet offered ground transport equipment which is needed, or met a UN request for 18 transport helicopters and six attack helicopters.

The UN said 135 Chinese army engineers were due to fly to South Darfur's capital Nyala early tomorrow to start building bridges and other infrastructure in preparation for the arrival of the hybrid force.

REUTERS RSA KN2339

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