BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) - NATO is considering boosting aid to African peacekeepers in Sudan in response to mounting U.S. pressure for an intensified effort to halt the ethnic violence in western Darfur, but officials say there are no plans for a major deployment of troops.
Diplomats on Monday confirmed that discussions were underway for NATO to boost training, transport and planning assistance to the African Union peacekeeping force of 7,000, which has failed to halt the violence blamed for a humanitarian disaster that has killed an estimated 180,000 people.
President Bush called NATO's Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer on Friday to discuss the issue. On the same day, Bush told an audience in Tampa, Fla., that the peacekeeping mission should be doubled in size and given more help from the Western alliance.
"It's going to require a ... NATO stewardship, planning, facilitating, organizing, probably double the number of peacekeepers that are there now, in order to start bringing some sense of security,'' Bush said.
Also Friday, two U.S. senators introduced a resolution calling on NATO to send troops and impose a no-fly zone over Darfur.
However, NATO officials say political sensitivities will probably mean that the alliance's role will - for the time being at least - prevent the dispatch of large numbers of European or North American troops.
They point out that any NATO deployment would need a United Nations request, with backing from Russia, China and the African Union - which has stressed a preference for an African solution to the conflict.
"NATO has not received any formal request from the U.N. or from the African Union for anything beyond what it is currently doing,'' said NATO spokesman James Appathurai. "NATO is continuing to do what it has been doing for many months, and that is airlifting in and out African Union battalions ... as well as providing training.''
NATO is looking at how it could do more as the United Nations prepares to take over direct responsibility for the peacekeeping force from the poorly equipped and funded African Union force. The Security Council this month approved a U.N. takeover of the mission and the U.N.'s top official in Sudan, Jan Pronk, has said that could see the force expanded to up to 20,000.
However, NATO military officials say there is little enthusiasm among European allies for a full-scale NATO mission and the United Nations is expected to continue to use African troops to provide the bulk of the peacekeeping force.
Although a high-powered Western force could be more effective militarily, many fear the political fallout - particularly if the mainly Muslim Sudanese government opposes a NATO deployment.
"If we do it through NATO we'll give further encouragement to all those who are condemning the white man and are fueling the clash of civilizations,'' said Dominique Moisi, deputy director of the French Institute of International Relations. "They will use it against us.''
France in particular is concerned about the possible impact of using NATO in Africa. Without mentioning Sudan specifically, French Defense Minister Michelle Alliot-Marie cautioned recently against NATO taking on missions best left to other organizations.
"Let us make sure we do not spread ourselves too much in areas where the competence of other organizations is more obvious,'' she told a security conference in Germany.
Bush sent Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick to Europe this month to sound out the allies on NATO's role. At the same meeting in Munich, Zoellick spoke about the need for more logistics, intelligence and planning assistance to the African Union mission, including the deployment of a small number of experts on the ground.
The United States and several other nations have said genocide has occurred in Darfur. The Arab-dominated government in Khartoum has been accused of backing the Janjaweed militia against civilians in an area where black African rebels revolted in 2003. An estimated 2 million have been forced from their homes. (PROFILE (COUNTRY:Belgium; ISOCOUNTRY3:BEL; UNTOP:150; UN2ND:155; APGROUP:Europe;) (COUNTRY:China; ISOCOUNTRY3:CHN; UNTOP:142; UN2ND:030; APGROUP:Asia;) (COUNTRY:France; ISOCOUNTRY3:FRA; UNTOP:150; UN2ND:155; APGROUP:Europe;) (COUNTRY:Germany; ISOCOUNTRY3:DEU; UNTOP:150; UN2ND:155; APGROUP:Europe;) (COUNTRY:Russia; ISOCOUNTRY3:RUS; UNTOP:150; UN2ND:151; APGROUP:Europe;) (COUNTRY:Sudan; ISOCOUNTRY3:SDN; UNTOP:002; UN2ND:015; APGROUP:MiddleEast; APGROUP:Africa;) (COUNTRY:United States; ISOCOUNTRY3:USA; UNTOP:021; APGROUP:NorthAmerica;)