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NATO could decide as early as next week whether to send up to 500 troops, including some U.S. forces, to Africa to boost peacekeeping efforts for Sudan’s embattled Darfur region.

The proposal, backed by the Bush administration, calls for NATO forces to provide headquarters-type support outside of Darfur for the African Union’s fledgling peacekeeping force.

About 7,000 African troops are in Darfur trying to stop a three-year conflict between Sudan’s government-backed militias and anti-government rebels. The African peacekeepers, according to two officials from the Pentagon and NATO, could use more help in command-and-control, logistics and transport.

About 180,000 people have died, mostly from disease and hunger, and more than 1 million have been displaced since fighting began in the vast region, which is nearly the size of Texas.

The officials spoke on the condition on anonymity because of ongoing negotiations among the U.S. and European and African nations. They said any near-term increase in NATO’s Darfur mission is likely to be small.

“The general attitude within NATO nations is there is a lot of caution about getting too much more engaged,” the NATO official said. “So I think the political reality is the Americans would like NATO to do more than other NATO nations are willing to do.”

“The African Union, we need to help them succeed,” the Pentagon official said. “This is an African mission that [the AU wants] to have. We are in a support role to provide the capacity for them to be successful.

“It’s a much more credible mission for them to be successful. [But] we have to wait for them to ask us for support.”

Violence in the region erupted on Thursday when rebels in Chad, which borders the Darfur region to the west, tried to stage a coup in Chad’s capital of N’djamena and were bloodily defeated by the Chadian army.

According to The Associated Press, the Chadian rebels originated their attack from the Chad-Darfur border region, where many of Darfur’s refugees have migrated.

The U.S. Air Force has been among those providing airlift support to the African Union over the past two years. In February, about 15 airmen from the Ramstein, Germany-based 86th Contingency Response Group flew to Rwanda to help transport African peacekeepers to Darfur.

NATO-flagged forces, including U.S. troops, also have provided training to several hundred AU officers. But so far, no NATO forces have engaged in the fighting or peacekeeping in Darfur, according to the NATO Web site.

“The AU has lots of soldiers, lots of infantry,” the NATO official said. “It has problems with command and control and supply transport, all the sinews of military activity.

“That’s probably where the expertise would help most — on supply and logistics command and control.”

Options are also being discussed to institute a United Nations peacekeeping mission in Darfur, President Bush said in February. Bush at that time called for a U.N.-flagged force of 7,000 troops to augment the African peacekeepers.

The Sudanese government has resisted outside intervention, and consensus by the 26 member-nations of NATO has been slow to build.

“The AU wants to be successful,” the Pentagon official said. “They have much more [geography to protect] than we can even comprehend.”

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