"The protection force will be deployed as soon as possible ... Forces from Rwanda and Nigeria are on standby. They are ready go to," AU Director of Peace and Security Sam Ibok said at a news conference on Monday. 

The Darfur mission, announced on the eve of the annual summit of African leaders in Addis Ababa, will mark the organisation's only joint military deployment since it sent peacekeepers to Burundi in 2003. 

The AU has deployed unarmed observers to Darfur and had said if all parties agreed it was necessary, it would send armed troops to protect the monitors. 

Ibok said he was certain Sudan would not object. "We are confident that they will accept. It has been difficult, but we are talking to them," Ibok said. 

Under pressure

Khartoum is under heavy pressure from African countries, the United States and the United Nations to restore security in Darfur, an area that is considered to be on the verge of the world's worst humanitarian disaster. 

"The protection force will be deployed as soon as possible ... Forces from Rwanda and Nigeria are on standby. They are ready go to"

Sam Ibok,
AU Director of Peace and Security

Ibok said an initial deployment of 300 troops would likely be sent to guard an eventual 60 AU peace monitors as well as to patrol refugee camps and border areas between Sudan and Chad, where some 200,000 Sudanese have fled to safety from attacks by armed groups. 

The Darfur crisis is seen by analysts and diplomats as a major test for the AU. One official said the war in Sudan's west could be a litmus test for the two-year-old organisation's self-imposed mandate to resolve conflicts in Africa. 

Ibok said the AU was not willing to call the Darfur violence genocide or ethnic cleansing, as some human rights groups and US officials have suggested. But he said the AU nevertheless was extremely concerned over human rights abuses. 

AU officials are equally careful not to describe the planned Darfur troop deployment as a "peacekeeping operation". 
 
Khartoum pledges cooperation

Sudan's Foreign Minister Mustafa Usman Ismail said on Monday Khartoum had agreed to attend AU-mediated negotiations on Darfur in Ethiopia this month and would "cooperate fully with the African Union". 

Sudan has said it will disarm the
Arab militia

Despite international pressure, however, the path to peace in Darfur looks uncertain with two rebel groups saying they would not negotiate unless Sudan first disarmed marauding fighters and respected a shaky ceasefire agreed to in April. 

The rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) say the government has armed 'militias', known as Janjaweed, to loot and burn villages in an alleged campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Khartoum denies the charge. 

As many as one million people have been driven from their homes by the violence that erupted last year, and up to 30,000 have been killed. 

Disarming fighters

Sudan officials say they are carrying out a promise to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to disarm armed groups and allow unrestricted aid access. 

But some observers have cast doubt on Sudan's ability to disarm these groups on its own. "As you dig deeper into the political situation here, you start to wonder whether Sudan is actually capable of controlling the situation in Darfur," said one observer at the summit, who declined to be named. 

Ibok said concerns over security on the ground had led the AU to plan for the troop deployment. "We thought that it might be necessary in terms of confidence building, and that is the approach we are taking," he said.