By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United Nations Security Council on Monday extended for another year a peacekeeping mission to protect civilians and ensure aid delivery in Sudan's remote western region of Darfur despite calls by Khartoum to withdraw the $1.1 billion operation.
Law and order have collapsed in much of Darfur, where mainly non-Arab rebels took up arms in 2003 against the Arab-led government in Khartoum, accusing it of discrimination. A joint African Union-United Nations Mission (UNAMID) deployed in 2007.
Sudan asked UNAMID late last year to prepare to leave amid a dispute over attempts by the mission to investigate an alleged mass rape by Sudanese soldiers in the Darfur town of Tabit. The government denies any wrongdoing by the soldiers. [ID:nL1N0VJ24I]
In a unanimously adopted resolution, the 15-member Security Council stressed that any withdrawal of the mission would be measured against benchmarks and conditions on the ground and implemented in a phased, flexible, reversible manner.
"Now is not the time to cut and run. Sudan has the greatest number of internally displaced people in Africa. And 2014 saw the worst level of suffering in the last 10 years," British U.N. Ambassador Matthew Rycroft told reporters.
The council expressed deep concern at the serious deterioration in the security situation in Darfur, "in particular, through a marked escalation of hostilities between government forces and rebel armed groups."
"UNAMID must continue to give priority in decisions about the use of available capacity and resources to the protection of civilians ... and ensuring safe, timely and unhindered humanitarian access," the council resolution said.
Sudan's Deputy U.N. Ambassador Hassan Hamid Hassan said it was "completely wrong" to say Darfur was engulfed in warfare. He said the government of Sudan was committed to working with the peacekeeping mission, but that there were several areas in Darfur that were now stable and troops could be withdrawn.
According to the United Nations, as many as 300,000 people have been killed, some 4.4 million people need aid and more than 2.5 million are displaced. The International Criminal Court has issued a warrant for the arrest of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on charges of war crimes and genocide in Darfur.
"Sadly, given the very high level of violence and very large numbers of displaced, UNAMID's presence is needed now more than ever," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, told the council.
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Alan Crosby)