Under fire for rights abuses, Sudan wants to take over the presidency of the 53-member organisation from Nigeria at a two-day AU summit in Khartoum that starts on
Monday. By tradition, the host is given the chair.
But Khartoum's bid has provoked criticism from rights groups, who say it would make a mockery of AU efforts to promote human rights and democracy, and prompted disquiet among some African nations which want to clean up the continent's image.
"We are not running after anything but the success of this conference," Sudanese Information Minister al-Zawahi Ibrahim Malik told Reuters, indicating that Sudan was easing back on its previously more aggressive campaign for support.
"We think that if there is a chance for Sudan to have the chairmanship of the coming session of the African Union, we think the Sudan has the right to take it. If not, it is okay," he said.
As African leaders began arriving on Sunday, Sudanese state security stormed a meeting of local and international rights groups and briefly detained about 50 delegates meeting on the sidelines of the summit.
Security officers demanded to see the agenda and list of delegates at the meeting and tried to take their laptops, witnesses said. Journalists were told to leave and their recording equipment was confiscated.
PRESSURE TO WITHDRAW
Sudan had been trumpeting support from East and North African countries, but diplomats said southern, western and central Africa had been working behind the scenes to ask Sudan to withdraw and possibly make way for Nigeria to stay on.
Sudanese officials said point blank on Saturday that Khartoum would not withdraw and had a right to become the next president, but on Sunday Malik said Sudan would withdraw if asked by heads of state.
African and other delegates said it seemed increasingly unlikely that Sudan would now take the chair of the AU, which was set up in 2002 to promote democracy, human rights and development across Africa.
"The only news here is what's not going to happen, and that is that (Sudanese President Omar Hassan) al-Bashir is not going to get the presidency," a Western diplomat said.
Sudanese media had played up Khartoum's bid to head the AU, but on Sunday the state press said Sudan's main aim was a successful summit rather than winning the presidency.
The Sudanese government has been widely criticised for its handling of the Darfur conflict. The United States says Khartoum carried out genocide in the area, a charge Sudan denies.
About 7,000 African troops under AU command are policing a tentative truce in the vast Darfur region, and the AU is sponsoring talks in Nigeria to end the conflict.
Rebels who took up arms against Khartoum in 2003, complaining their region had been neglected, say they will walk out of the Abuja talks if Sudan is picked to head the AU, though Sudan says Nigeria would still host any negotiations.
The presidency debate has overshadowed preparations for a summit that is supposed to cover education and culture, as well as address other rights issues, such as whether Senegal should extradite former Chadian President Hissene Habre to Belgium on charges of atrocities committed when he ruled Chad.