The US on Monday stepped up its drive to end the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region, rushing a top official to crucial peace talks and sharply criticizing delays in bolstering security.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed growing frustration with the continued bloodshed in Darfur where up to 300,000 people have died in three years of fighting between rebels and government-backed militias.
"The international community has got to respond. None of us want to see this situation in Darfur continue and or worsen," she told reporters. "The movement is too slow and we'll press very hard to get it quicker."
Rice spoke after dispatching her deputy, Robert Zoellick, to Abuja, Nigeria, in a bid to help nail down a peace agreement to end what the UN has called one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.
Zoellick, Washington's point man on Sudan, will "try to assist the African Union (AU) mediation team find solutions to the remaining issues regarding a peace agreement for Darfur," the State Department said.
The AU had given both sides until Sunday midnight to reach an accord in the conflict, which has left 2.4 million people homeless. When the rebels refused to sign, the mediators allowed them another 48 hours.
While the talks hung in the balance, Rice hit out at the failure to make progress on a US-backed initiative to expand a beleaguered 7,000-strong AU peacekeeping contingent in Darfur into a larger UN force.
The Khartoum government, which Washington accuses of genocide in Darfur, has blocked the proposal, and the AU has been slow to follow up a NATO offer of increased logistical help.
"Frankly, we need to shake the trees a little bit, shake the bureaucracy a little bit and say to people: It's not acceptable to wait any longer for at least the planning for a robust security force," Rice said.
"We need to get support for the humanitarian effort. We need to get the effort moving on the planning for the force. And we need an AU response to NATO about what is needed," Rice said.
Zoellick, who has been to Sudan four times, hoped to use his considerable negotiating skills to narrow remaining differences in the Abuja talks, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
"Right now, it is down to a few difficult issues, things concerning disarmament of militias, how to integrate former militias into an armed force and associated issues," McCormack said.
The rebels say the AU draft agreement also does not adequately resolve issues of power-sharing and wealth distribution in Sudan's western region.
Khartoum said it was prepared on Sunday to sign the accord and was willing to negotiate. McCormack said Zoellick "decided that this was the right moment to try to get this over the goal line."
Zoellick, accompanied by Jendayi Frazer, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, and Roger Winter, special representative for Sudan, had no fixed time limit for his trip to Abuja, McCormack said.
He described the former top US trade negotiator as "somebody who's results-oriented. I think that he will continue his work out there as long as he thinks it is useful to do so."
McCormack expressed the hope that a peace agreement in Abuja could end the stalemate on the security front as well.
"Obviously, there's interaction among those various things," he said.
"Moving forward on the political front on Abuja will be key to really coming to a more complete and lasting solution to the situation in Darfur," he said.