But the main rebel groups in Darfur welcomed the idea and agreed with UN envoy Jan Pronk's assessment that a more robust peacekeeping deployment with a stronger mandate was needed to quell the three-year-old bloodshed. 

Lam Akol, the Sudanese foreign minister, described as "premature" any talk of a handover and reiterated his government's confidence in the almost 7000-strong AU contingent deployed in Darfur in western Sudan.

"The AU has shown competence and its performance in Darfur has been good," he said in Khartoum. 

"Such a proposal questions the AU's ability to carry out its
mission, and the Africans' ability to solve their problems... It is regrettable that some African countries support this new trend," a Foreign Ministry statement said.

Out of cash

The mandate of the AU peacekeeping force is due to be extended at the end of the month for nine to 12 months but Akol said the mission is expected to run out of cash by March.

He said the AU needed $160 million to carry out its mission until the end of 2006 and urged the international community
to come forward with the funds. 

Pronk, UN special envoy in Sudan, told the Security Council on Friday that the AU contingent in Darfur lacked the means to prevent conflict and proposed a more robust UN force to take its place. 

AU urges compliance

A senior AU official called on Khartoum to accept UN troops on Saturday.

Patrick Mazimhaka, the deputy head of the executive AU Commission, said that as a member of AU's Peace and Security Council (PSC), Sudan was obliged to abide by the decisions of the 53-member pan-African body. 

"Sudan will have to accept that decision [when it its made]. They are part of the PSC, they will have to comply with it."

On Thursday, the AU said it may be forced to hand over its
peacekeeping mission to the UN if international donors
fail to plug a funding shortfall. 

Rebels on board

The two main rebel groups welcomed the UN proposal. 

Rebels groups have welcomed
the UN proposal

Ahmed Hussein, spokesman for the Justice and Equality Movement, said: "We welcome any practical response by the international community, especially the United Nations, to address the situation in Darfur."

Speaking from Abuja where his group has been jointly negotiating with the rival Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM), Hussein said the key to any peacekeeping deployment was the nature of its mandate. 

"We don't just want troops, we want a force with a strong and clear mandate, a force that can protect civilians from the Janjawid and the government forces and actually implement US Security Council resolutions."

SLM spokesman Mahjub Hussein said "so long as African troops are tasked with maintaining peace and security in Darfur, the
Sudanese government will feel it can do whatever it wants".

Pronk said the proposed UN force, which has yet to be approved by the Security Council, should stay at least three to four years after the signing of a peace agreement and should have its financing guaranteed.