KHARTOUM Nov 21 Sudan has asked the joint U.N.-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur to prepare to leave, a senior official said amid a dispute between the United Nations and Khartoum over an alleged mass rape in the region.
Sudan initially refused to let the UNAMID peacekeepers visit a village to investigate the rape allegations. They were later allowed in and found no evidence that Sudanese troops had raped about 200 women and girls there, but UNAMID complained of a heavy military presence during interviews. "Sudan formally requested - I formally requested - that UNAMID make an exit strategy. That does not mean it will pack up its things and say goodbye," Foreign Ministry under-secretary Abdallah al-Azraq told reporters.
He suggested the mission's departure would take time.
Azraq gave no reason for the request but said it had been submitted a few weeks ago, before media reports of mass rape.
Sudan has denied any wrongdoing by its soldiers in Darfur and says the rape allegations are part of an international plot to mar its image. UNAMID spokesman Ashraf Eissa confirmed that the mission had received the request and said a U.N. Security Council resolution passed in August mentioned an exit strategy as an option. He said an assessment would be ready by the end of February.
Security Council diplomats who declined to be identified said a review of that assessment could produce the extreme option of shutting down UNAMID. They said Khartoum had never wanted a peacekeeping mission on its soil.
UNAMID has been deployed in Sudan's western Darfur region since 2007. Law and order had collapsed in many places after mainly African tribes took up arms in 2003 against the Arab-led government in Khartoum, accusing it of discrimination.
Azraq said Sudan had rejected a fresh U.N. request to visit the village of Tabit, saying, "We look at this statement as an attempt to create an atmosphere for further escalation and decisions against Sudan."
Last month, an internal U.N. review said UNAMID had failed to provide U.N. headquarters in New York with full reports on attacks against civilians and peacekeepers. The review was ordered after media reports alleged that UNAMID had deliberately covered up details of deadly attacks.
The conflict in Darfur has killed as many as 300,000 people and displaced two million, the United Nations says.
(Reporting by Maaz Alnugomi in Khartoum, Louis Charbonneau in Vienna and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Mark Heinrich)