Alpha Oumar Konare, the African Union (AU) Commission chairman made the recommendation at the start of a meeting of the group's Peace and Security Council on Friday, which is under intense international pressure to turn over Darfur peacekeeping to the United Nations despite strong objections from Sudan.

He said extending the mission would give the organisation time to persuade Sudan to accept a UN presence in Darfur where a three-year-old conflict has displaced more than 2 million people and created a major humanitarian crisis.

"I recommend that the Peace and Security Council renew the mandate of the mission for a period of nine months, until 31 December," Konare said in a report to the AU council.

Funds needed

"I recommend that the Peace and Security Council renew the mandate of the mission for a period of nine months, until 31 December"

Alpha Oumar Konare,
AU Commission chairman

The cost of extending the mission from April through December would be $218 million, the report said. The African Mission in Sudan (AMIS) still needs an additional $4.6 million to reach the end of March, it said.

The AU is monitoring a shaky ceasefire with 7000 ill-equipped troops. Security has deteriorated recently to the point that vast areas of Darfur are off limits to aid workers.

Sudan said it would accept the AU proposal and reinforce AU troops in Darfur with 10,000 men - half Sudanese armed forces and half former southern Sudanese rebel SPLA soldiers who have been integrated into the Sudanese army.

"This force can be deployed in Darfur within three weeks," Sudan said in a presentation to the council.

UN consideration

The UN has been pressing Sudan
to accept peacekeepers in Darfur 

Lam Akol, the Sudanese foreign minister, said Khartoum would also consider UN peacekeepers in the future if security was  stabilised in Darfur and a peace deal reached at talks in Abuja. He said he expected a peace agreement by the end of March.

Taye-Brook Zerihoun,  representative of Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, told Reuters the world body would also accept the AU plan.

"It's fine with us. It makes our work even easier if we go in through a peace agreement," Zerihoun said.

Friday's ministerial level AU meeting follows two days of intensive negotiations between the European Union, which has provided the bulk of the funding for the peacekeeping mission, the United States and Sudan's government.

EU pressure

Washington and the EU tried unsuccessfully to persuade Sudan to accept a UN force, the possibility of which prompted government-led protests in Khartoum this week and threats of jihad against any UN troops.

Akol said if the AU decided to turn over its mission to the United Nations it would spell the end of peace talks in Nigeria and any AU role in security in Darfur.

"As much as the government of Sudan would want AMIS to continue, should the AU choose to terminate its mandate in Darfur it is free to do so, and this will include all aspects of its involvement in security and the peace processes," Akol said in a statement to the AU.