Sudan gave the green light on Thursday for a joint UN and African Union (AU) team to travel to the war-torn western region of Darfur to lay the groundwork for a possible UN peacekeeping mission.
The move tentatively opens the door towards the deployment of UN troops but both sides were at pains to insist no blue helmets would be dispatched alongside the existing AU contingent without Khartoum's agreement.
"This joint mission of the UN and the AU will start with detailed and wide-ranging consultations in Khartoum," UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi told reporters following a meeting with Sudanese President Omar al-Beshir.
"It will then proceed to Darfur to assess the additional needs of the [AU Mission in Sudan] AMIS, which must be immediately strengthened since it will have the initial responsibility of facilitating the implementation of the Darfur peace agreement," he added.
"The mission would also undertake an assessment of all the requirements for a possible transition from the AU to the UN," he said, adding that the assessment would begin "in the coming days."
Currently there are around 7,000 AU troops in Darfur, but Western pressure has mounted on Khartoum to allow UN troops to bolster or take over from the under-equipped AU forces after the signing of a peace deal for the region earlier this month in Abuja.
Sudanese Foreign Minister Lam Akol insisted after the talks that the African Union must play a part outlining the UN role as the AU "is the body that will monitor implementation of the agreement," the SUNA agency reported.
UN chief Kofi Annan on Tuesday called Beshir to urge him to let the UN military planners in, telling him he "hoped to see the UN assessment mission dispatched as soon as possible."
Khartoum has blown hot and cold over whether it will accept a UN deployment in Darfur, initially flatly refusing such a move but more recently suggesting that it is willing to exercise flexibility on the issue.
At UN headquarters in New York, spokesman Stephane Dujarric hailed Khartoum's decision as "an important step in the planning process for an eventual UN takeover" of peacekeeping in Darfur.
The UN Security Council passed a resolution under Chapter Seven on May 16 urging speedy implementation of the peace accord reached in Nigeria early this month between Khartoum and the main Darfur rebel group.
Brahimi said that recalcitrant rebel factions who fail to sign up to the peace deal "will be taking a grave responsibility."
The 15-member body also called for the deployment of a joint UN-AU technical assessment team within one week to lay the groundwork for a handover of the current AU peacekeeping mission to the UN.
Resolutions passed under Chapter Seven are binding, eventually allowing for the use of force if they are not complied with.
Brahimi, however, said that the UN would not fight its way into Darfur.
"The UN will not invade Sudan. The transition depends on agreement by the government of Sudan," he said, adding that he would tell Annan of "questions and concerns" raised by Khartoum over the UN mission.
"In case the government agrees, we will make arrangements for a peacekeeping force. Those arrangement may include expansion of the UN mission in south Sudan," the UN envoy said.
"The UN respects Sudan's sovereignty and I have reassured the Sudanese officials that nothing will be imposed on the Sudan and peacekeeping forces will be deployed only on agreement by the Sudanese government," the envoy said.