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Meeting Seeks to Find Plan for Darfur

by Jenny Barchfield

PARISĀ  - French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged swift international action Monday toward speeding up deployment of troops in Darfur, as key world players met to try to consolidate efforts and resources for the ravaged Sudanese region.

Sudan was not invited to the one-day Paris conference, organized by a new French government that has made the four-year conflict in Darfur a top priority. The meetings come after Sudan agreed - under international pressure - to allow the deployment of a joint African Union-United Nations peacekeeping force in the region.

Sarkozy pledged an additional $13.4 million to the existing - and cash-strapped - African Union force.

"Silence is killing," in Darfur, Sarkozy said in greeting participants to the conference. "The lack of decision and the lack of action is unacceptable."

He praised Sudan for agreeing to the hybrid force but insisted, "We must be firm toward belligerents who refuse to join the negotiating table."

Stepping up pressure for progress, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Sunday night that the international community has fallen down on the job in Darfur.

"I have seen firsthand the devastation and the difficult circumstances in which people live in Darfur, and I will be very frank," Rice said after meeting French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner in Paris. "I do not think that the international community has really lived up to its responsibilities there."

Rice welcomed the fresh energy France's new conservative-led leadership has put to the Darfur cause. She and Sarkozy met Tuesday morning, their first face-to-face talks since Sarkozy took over last month from Jacques Chirac, who often had prickly relations with the United States.

French officials said they hope to mobilize the international community at what they called a "pivotal moment," following the Sudanese government's agreement earlier this month to allow the deployment of the joint AU-U.N. force.

Details about the composition, mandate and timetable of the joint force were expected to top discussions at Monday's meetings.

Sarkozy praised Sudan for agreeing to the new hybrid force but insisted, "We must be firm toward belligerents who refuse to join the negotiating table."

"There are now 19 rebel groups in Sudan and we must exert important pressure so they return to the negotiating table," Kouchner added.

China, viewed as a power broker in Sudan, spoke against sanctions and a boycott of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games to force Beijing to get tough with Khartoum.

Beijing has dramatically stepped up efforts to end the violence in Darfur in the wake of mounting criticism that threatened to taint the Olympics.

China's special envoy for Sudan, Liu Giujin, said, "That's baseless, that's unfounded," when asked by reporters whether the Chinese oil industry's involvement in Sudan made Beijing reticent to come down hard.

"Now is not the time to talk about further sanctions," he said. He said any attempt to link the crisis the Beijing Olympics was "really unfounded. The basic character of the Olympics is nonpolitical."

China, which has heavy investment in Sudan, is one of the five U.N. Security Council permanent members with veto power. It has long opposed harsh measures against Sudan over Darfur.

More than 200,000 people have died in the Darfur region of western Sudan and 2.5 million have become refugees since 2003, when local rebels took up arms against the Sudanese government, accusing it of decades of neglect. Sudan's government is accused of unleashing in response a militia of Arab nomads known as the janjaweed - a charge Sudan denies.

The U.N. and Western governments had pressed Sudan for months to accept a plan for a large joint force of U.N. and AU peacekeepers to replace the overwhelmed 7,000-strong African force now in Darfur.

Sudan initially accepted the plan in November but then backtracked, before finally agreeing earlier this month. Rice warned Sudan's government not to renege on its agreement.

Officials from the Sudanese government in Khartoum have said Monday's conference could backfire and cause more harm than good.

The head of Darfur Emergency Group, an umbrella organization representing French groups lobbying for an end to the conflict disagreed.

"Perhaps those at the conference will be able to say certain things they wouldn't be able to say in front of the Sudanese," he said.

Kouchner insisted Sunday, "This is not a 'peacemaking' meeting, but on the contrary, a meeting to support the international efforts that have been deployed."

Kouchner, a Socialist who co-founded aid group Doctors Without Borders, said "humanitarian work ... is not enough." He also noted that the world powers must agree to support the U.N. force financially.

"If there are 20,000 forces who are in the hybrid force, whoever they are, they must be paid," he said.

The conference includes Rice, Kouchner, officials from the United Nations, the Arab League and the European Union, as well as 11 European countries, Egypt and China.

Notable absences, other than Sudan, include the AU and neighboring Chad, which has seen an influx of tens of thousands of people fleeing Darfur and is a key conduit for aid.

China has not received a formal request to send soldiers for the AU-U.N. peacekeeping mission, but officials have said it is open to contributing troops.

Associated Press Writer John Leicester contributed to this story.

© 2007 The Associated Press.

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