By Tsegaye Tadesse
ADDIS ABABA, June 12 (Reuters) - Sudan agreed on Tuesday to a combined United Nations and African Union peacekeeping force of more than 20,000 troops and police to be deployed in its troubled Darfur region after months of intense diplomacy.
AU Peace and Security Commissioner Said Djinnit said Khartoum agreed to a hybrid, compromise force of between 17,000 and 19,000 troops and an additional 3,700 police.
"The government of Sudan accepted the joint proposal on the hybrid operation," Djinnit said, reading a statement after two days of meetings in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa.
But U.S. officials appeared to cast doubt on the deal being secure. Several agreements in the Darfur conflict have failed to come to fruition.
The deal follows months of talks, threats and negotiations to persuade Khartoum to accept an effective peacekeeping force in remote Darfur which has been beset by four years of violence.
The Darfur problem dates back to early 2003 when non-Arab rebels took up arms, accusing the government of not heeding their plight in the remote, arid region. Khartoum mobilised Arab militia, known locally as Janjaweed, to quell the revolt.
International experts estimate 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million have been expelled from their homes. Sudan says 9,000 people have died.
An African Union mission was sent to the region but struggled to be effective and Khartoum had rejected a Security Council resolution authorising a U.N. force to take over from the AU team, calling it an attempt to colonise Sudan.
Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir last year swore he would resign and lead the resistance to any U.N. troops entering Muslim Darfur.
On Tuesday, Djinnit appealed to the U.N. Security Council to authorise the deployment of the hybrid force without delay. The AU and Sudan now expect the world body to approve full funding.
The existing African Union peace mission in Darfur relies on the whim of donor nations for funds, a system AU officials blame for problems paying salaries and demoralising its 7,000 or so troops and police.
But mixed signals over the command and control of the force may worry the Security Council ahead of a funding vote.
"Command and control structures should be under the AU with the support of the United Nations," the head of Sudan’s delegation in Addis Ababa, Mutrif Siddig, told Reuters.
But last week a U.N. peacekeeping official said the AU should have operational control, and the United Nations overall authority.
Djinnit said Sudan had also raised the issue of an "exit strategy" for the peacekeepers, and all parties agreed the operation would be periodically reviewed.
Sudan’s Siddig confirmed the government had agreed to both options proposed by the AU and United Nations: either 17,605 troops with rapid-reaction units or 19,555 troops without the rapid response. At least 3,700 police would also deploy.
"The government and all the parties are open to both alternatives," Siddig told Reuters from Addis Ababa. "We do not have any problem with troop numbers."
Djinnit and Siddig said the majority of the troops would be African.
"If there are not enough contributions from Africa, then troops can be brought in from elsewhere," Siddig said.
But U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad, casting new doubts on the deal, said it was still unclear whether Sudan had definitely agreed to non-African troops.
"If it (Sudan’s acceptance) is conditional, as we hear, that there will be only African troops involved and no non-Africans, that would be putting a condition on the acceptance — and that would be unacceptable," Khalilzad said in New York.
U.N. sanctions would still be on the table if it appeared later that Sudan’s acceptance was conditional, he said.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the force would not be effective if "the fine print" in the accord meant it was limited to African troops.
In this case, it would be difficult to get enough troops to go to Darfur because "the assets simply aren’t there," he told reporters.
"So, to say that the force would be limited to African troops is, in effect, to say that you are not agreeing to the full 17,000 to 19,000 troops, which everybody ... believes is what you need in order to perform the mission." (Additional reporting by Simon Apiku and Opheera McDoom in Khartoum and Evelyn Leopold in New York)