- Associated Press - Sunday, November 23, 2014

CAIRO (AP) - The joint U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur said Sunday that the Sudanese government has asked it to prepare plans to exit the country, amid tension between Khartoum and the mission over an investigation into allegations of mass rape.

The formal request was delivered to the mission last week, spokesman Ashraf Eissa said.

The snub followed public tension between the U.N. and the government of Khartoum, which initially denied the mission access to Tabit, a village in violence-torn Darfur, following media allegations that women were raped by government-allied troops late last month.

Days later, a mission was allowed into the village escorted by government troops. The mission then said it had not immediately discovered evidence of rape, but has promised further investigation.

Eissa said a request has been sent for another visit, but there was no response yet. On Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council called on Khartoum to allow the UNAMID “full and unrestricted movement” around Darfur to allow for a full and transparent investigation “without interference.” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Monday he was “deeply troubled” by the persistent allegations, and urged Sudan to grant unfettered access to the town so that investigators can verify the reports.

The verification is likely to be difficult as time passes.

Sudanese officials have lashed out at UNAMID in the media. In comments quoted by local Ashrooq TV Sunday, Foreign Minister Ali Karti warned the mission to “stick to its mandate…or leave us alone.”

The mandate of the mission, established in 2007, expires in March. The U.N. Security council asked the organization’s secretary-general to prepare an exit strategy by February. Meanwhile, the security situation in Darfur has worsened this year, with more than 300,000 people fleeing their homes.

The mission has come under criticism from within the U.N., with the findings of an internal review last month saying it has taken an “unduly conservative” approach to publicly sharing information about crimes against civilians and peacekeepers.

The 19,000-strong mission has one of the highest budgets of the 16 U.N peacekeeping forces.

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