The African Union was yesterday to bring Sudan's warring government and rebel armies into talks with regional power-brokers aimed at heading off a mounting humanitarian crisis in the province of Darfur.
Delegations from the Khartoum government and from Darfur's two rebel groups have gathered in the Nigerian capital Abuja to make their rival cases before an audience of African leaders, African Union officials and the head of the Arab League.
On the eve of the talks the host, President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, who is also chairman of the African Union, issued an unusually stern warning to President Omar Hassan al-Beshir's government that it must move quickly to restore order in Darfur.
The Nigerian leader said that Sudan must disarm the feared Janjaweed Arab militia, and called on Khartoum to allow a beefed-up African Union peacekeeping force of 2,000 Nigerian and Rwandan troops to deploy to Darfur.
"The leaders of the government of Sudan itself proclaimed that the Janjaweed were armed by the government. The government armed them so that they could be used against the rebels," he said, in a televised interview.
"The government's argument is `If we disarm them before the rebels what will happen?' But who is to disarm the rebels, those who armed the Janjaweed? This is where I believe that the effort of the African Union will be necessary," he said.
"And that is why, in the first instance, we took up our protection force, in addition to the observer team," Obasanjo said.
Nigeria and Rwanda have made more than 2,000 soldiers available to transform a small African Union ceasefire monitoring already team in Darfur into a genuine peacekeeping force. Sudan has not yet allowed them to deploy.
The UN reports that more than one million people have been driven from their homes in 18 months of fighting and that more than 30,000 have been killed, many of them in Janjaweed raids against unarmed villagers.
The results of yesterday's talks will be crucial when the UN decides this week whether Sudan has done enough to ensure the safety of Darfur's beleaguered people to head off international sanctions.
African Union commission chairman Alpha Oumar Konare arrived in Abuja on Sunday as had a special envoy from Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, African Union spokesman Assane Ba said.
British Foreign Minister Jack Straw was due in Sudan yesterday and his Dutch counterpart, Bernard Bot, is expected to follow him later in the week on behalf of the rotating EU presidency.
Meanwhile, the UN Security Council has given Khartoum until the end of the week to comply with a detailed plan to restore peace and security to Darfur or face international sanctions.