ADDIS ABABA, 13 March (IRIN) - The African Union has extended the mandate of its peacekeeping mission in the western Sudanese Darfur region by six months, after which it will transfer the operation to the United Nations, a statement issued in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa said.
The extension of the mandate of the 7,800-strong AU Darfur force until 30 September would allow time for the conclusion of a peace agreement in Abuja, Nigeria. It would also give the UN time to prepare to take over the mission.
The African Union's Peace and Security Council "stressed the need to sign a peace agreement by the end of April," said Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin, who read the statement to reporters.
The council, which met on Friday, reached the decision despite strong opposition from Sudan, which argued the transfer would risk worsening the situation in Darfur. The statement said it "took note of the decision that Sudan is prepared to accept the deployment of a UN mission after and as part of the conclusion of a peace agreement in Abuja."
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan welcomed the tentative agreement to hand over the cash-strapped peacekeeping mission to the UN. "We are pleased with the decision ... and look forward to working with them and the government of Sudan in ensuring that there is effective security on the ground in Darfur," he told reporters in New York.
Annan said he was encouraged by the fact that Khartoum seemed to be "softening its position" and pledged to work with the Sudanese government.
"We are pressing ahead with our contingency planning and we hope to be ready to work with the African Union as we move forward to the implementation of the anticipated decision by the [UN] Security Council that we push ahead with the transition," he said.
Sudanese Foreign Minister Lam Akol said he was happy with the decision and called the extension of the AU mandate "a victory for Africa".
The AU urged Sudan to refrain from "conducting hostile military flights in and over the Darfur region, expeditiously implement its stated commitment to neutralise and disarm the Janjawid/armed militias, and identify and declare those militias over whom it has influence and ensure that these militias refrain from all attacks, harassment and intimidation."
It called on the rebel Justice and Equality Movement and the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) to cooperate with AMIS in its efforts to establish security in areas occupied by their forces. It also specifically asked the SLM/A to withdraw from contentious areas such as Gereida.