2 nations opt out of UN force for Darfur

( AP ) - Sweden and Norway dropped plans Wednesday to send about 400 troops to the U.N. peacekeeping force in Darfur because of opposition from Sudan's government.

The two Scandinavian countries had planned to send a joint engineering unit to the peacekeeping force in the troubled region, but their foreign ministers said in a joint statement that " Sudan's opposition makes it impossible to maintain the offer of a Norwegian-Swedish contribution."

The U.N. mission known as UNAMID is the latest international attempt to quell fighting in the western Sudanese region, where more than 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million were chased from their homes since ethnic African rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated Sudanese government in 2003, accusing it of discrimination.

For months, Khartoum resisted a U.N. peacekeeping force for Darfur. Under a compromise deal reached earlier this year, the hybrid U.N. and African Union force must be predominantly African.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir reiterated warnings in November that he would not allow some European nations to take part in the force. He singled out Scandinavian countries, where some media had reproduced caricatures of Islam's Prophet Muhammad.

"Anyone who spoke blasphemously about the Prophet will not set a foot on Sudanese soil," he said.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere said Sudan must bear "full responsibility" for the Scandinavian countries' decision to drop their contribution to the peacekeeping force.

" Sudan hinders Norway and Sweden from participating in this very necessary operation," the ministers said.

The troops, 160 from Sweden and 240 from Norway, were supposed to help build infrastructure in an early stage of the operation.

The peacekeeping mission, which began on Jan. 1, already has faced problems in the region. A supplies convoy was attacked near the Chad border on Monday. A Sudanese driver was critically injured in the attack, which also destroyed a fuel tanker and damaged an armored personnel carrier.

The U.N. said the attack was carried out by members of the Sudanese armed forces. On Wednesday, Sudan strongly denied that its army was involved.

"The army has not fired a single bullet at the UNAMID, by mistake or not," Sudanese military spokesman Khalid Sawarmy told the independent Al-Sahafa newspaper. "What is reported about this is totally untrue."

The U.S. State Department has condemned the attack, describing it as "unacceptable and violates the demands of the Security Council and the Government of Sudan's public pledges to cooperate with the deployment of the peacekeeping mission."

The new joint force, which incorporates a previous African Union mission that suffered dozens of casualties, currently stands at about 9,000 troops and police and is supposed to grow to 26,000. But the deployment is far behind schedule and Western countries have so far failed to commit heavy fighting equipment such as helicopters.

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