U.N.-AU Darfur force needs much of 2008 to deploy

JUBA, Sudan, Jan 28 (Reuters) - A 26,000-strong joint U.N.-African Union force hoping to bring peace to Sudan's remote Darfur region will take most of the year to deploy, the head of U.N. peacekeeping said on Monday.

"I think it will take the better part of 2008 to deploy the full force," said Jean-Marie Guehenno, the United Nations under-secretary-general for peacekeeping. Just 9,000 members of the proposed force, which will be the U.N.'s largest, have been deployed so far.

The troops had been scheduled to be deployed by the end of 2007, but the Sudanese government had set conditions -- such as disabling their communications during security operations and banning night flights -- which the U.N. said cast doubts on whether the force could be effective.

"Some of the forces which we have planned to deploy we couldn't," Guehenno told reporters, referring to Khartoum's rejection of some non-African contingents.

Guehenno said the U.N. was in talks with the Sudanese government to define the rules under which the mission could operate in Darfur, a vast area roughly the size of France. He said the meetings were "positive" so far, but did not say whether Sudan had dropped any of its conditions.

International experts estimate some 200,000 have died and 2.5 million driven from their homes in almost five years of fighting in Darfur after mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms accusing the central government of neglect. Khartoum mobilised mainly Arab tribes to quell the insurgency.

Washington calls the violence genocide, a term Khartoum rejects and European governments are reluctant to use.

Guehenno was in the south Sudanese capital Juba to inspect a separate, almost 11,000-strong peacekeeping force which is monitoring implementation of a peace deal which ended Sudan's decades-long north-south civil war in 2005.

Clashes on the border between northern nomadic tribes and the south Sudanese army in the past month has caused concern, and the oil-rich Abyei region remains disputed and tense.

"We will soon send a team to assess the situation in detail ... so as to make proposals to the (U.N.) Security Council to see how best the mission can evolve to support the implementation of the peace agreement," Guehenno said.

Sudan's north-south war raged on and off since 1955 and claimed some 2 million lives. (Editing by Caroline Drees)