Speaking on the eve of a major fundraising conference for the peacekeeping mission, AU Peace Commissioner Said Djinnit told reporters Darfur was a critical test of international commitment and Africa’s resolve to end wars on the continent.
"We strongly believe that now is the time for peace in Darfur," he said at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, where he laid out a US $723 million rescue package.
"It is the time for the AU, it is the time for the parties and it is time for the international community to secure peace in Darfur," he added. "We strongly believe the AU needs support because alone we cannot do it."
Djinnit said the 53-nation bloc required financial, military and logistical backing. "It is not easy for us because we have limited means and resources - financial and human," he noted. "We are struggling to live up to the challenge; we know it is formidable."
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer was expected to attend the conference on Thursday with EU Foreign and Security Policy Chief Javier Solana and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Currently, NATO is working closely with the EU and UN to prepare the mission and has said it would not impose itself on the AU. Britain has offered trucks and France transport planes as EU nations seek to help the African peacekeepers end one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.
EU defence ministers meeting on Monday also offered help with command planning, surveillance and housing for the peacekeeping mission in Darfur.
At least 180,000 people are believed to have died and about two million others have fled their homes in Darfur to escape the conflict between rebels on one side and pro-government militia on the other.
Although the cash-strapped AU needs help, Djinnit insisted that troops on the ground would be exclusively African.
The mission, whose current strength is around 2,200, will begin expanding its troop numbers to 7,700 in July, which will cost the international community $463 million. Djinnit said the peacekeeping force could top 12,300 troops and police in 2006.
Nigeria, Rwanda, Kenya, South Africa, Gambia and Senegal have all said they have troops ready.
A "shopping list" of military hardware that includes helicopters, 116 armoured personnel carriers, passenger and cargo aircraft as well as trucks for African troops operating in Darfur will be presented at the summit on Thursday.
Djinnit said the AU’s presence would not be long-term. It would hand over authority to the UN once a political solution had been found. He said the focus now needed to be placed on the peace talks between the rebels and government.
"It is not the ambition or the means for the AU to engage in a long- term, long-standing peacekeeping, which other institutions like the UN are better placed to do," he said. "Our ambition is to make sure that there is a political settlement and that the process is in the hands of the Sudanese."
The Darfur conflict erupted in February 2003 after rebels took up arms, complaining of discrimination by Sudan's Arab-dominated government. The government responded by backing armed militias to counter the rebellion, but the militias have been accused of committing widespread atrocities against civilians.