African Union leaders have agreed in Gambia to extend a peacekeeping force in Darfur until the end of the year to allow the UN to finalise its preparations to deploy in the vast troubled region.
Republic of Congo leader Denis Sassou Nguesso, who currently holds the rotating AU presidency, told reporters at the end of a two-day summit here on Sunday that at the request of the UN Secretary-General, "the force will surely continue its mission until year end."
The AU had planned to withdraw its poorly-equipped force by the end of September citing a financial crunch.
But UN chief Kofi Annan had asked the African leaders at the summit for "flexibility" on their original plan, promising he would raise funding for the force at a donors conference on July 18.
Western powers plan a robust NATO-backed UN force to deploy to the devastated western region of Darfur, but Sudanese veteran leader Omar al-Beshir has been strongly against it.
Annan said ongoing discussions with Khartoum on the international troop intervention could yield positive results.
"In the world of politics things change, we hear 'never', 'forever' and yet it does come around and I still suspect in time there will be UN peacekeeping force in Darfur," said Annan.
The UN chief said the planning for deployment "is very well advanced... We do hope still to deploy the troops."
He said al-Beshir had promised to submit to him before end of July his "plan for the next six months" on easing the crisis in Darfur.