KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudan has asked a joint U.N.-African Union peacekeeping mission in its western Darfur region to prepare plans to leave, a senior official said on Friday, amid a dispute between the United Nations and Khartoum over an alleged mass rape in the area.
Sudan initially refused to let the UNAMID peacekeepers visit a village to investigate the rape allegations. They were later allowed in and found no evidence that Sudanese troops had raped about 200 women and girls there, but the U.N. complained of a heavy military presence during interviews.
"Sudan formally requested - I formally requested - that UNAMID make an exit strategy. That does not mean it will pack up its things and say goodbye," foreign minister under-secretary Abdallah al-Azraq told reporters, suggesting the mission's departure would take a long time.
Azraq gave no reason for the request but said it had first been submitted a few weeks ago, before the media reports of mass rape. Sudan has denied any wrongdoing by its soldiers in Darfur and says the rape allegations are part of an international plot to mar its image.
A UNAMID spokesman contacted by Reuters could not say whether it had received the request to draw up an exit strategy.
The U.N. peacekeeping office in New York said a Security Council resolution passed in August had mentioned an exit strategy as an option. It also said an assessment would be ready by the end of February for the U.N. Security Council, which will decide the mission's eventual fate.
UNAMID has been deployed in Sudan's western Darfur region since 2007. Law and order had collapsed in many places after mainly African tribes took up arms in 2003 against the Arab-led government in Khartoum, accusing it of discrimination.
Azraq said Sudan had rejected a fresh U.N. request to visit the village of Tabit, saying: "We look at this statement as an attempt to create an atmosphere for further escalation and decisions against Sudan."
Last month, an internal U.N. review said UNAMID had failed to provide U.N. headquarters in New York with full reports on attacks against civilians and peacekeepers. The review was ordered after media reports alleged that UNAMID had deliberately covered up details of deadly attacks.
The conflict in Darfur has killed as many as 300,000 people and displaced two million, the United Nations says.
(Reporting by Maaz Alnugomi; Writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Gareth Jones)