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By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United Nations Security Council on Thursday approved a phased drawdown of peacekeepers in Sudan's Darfur region that could almost halve the number of troops over the next year if conditions are conducive and the government is cooperative.
U.N. chief Antonio Guterres and the African Union (AU) had recommended the move to the 15-member Security Council in a report last month. The council unanimously adopted a resolution on Thursday that could also cut police by more than a quarter.
Conflict in Darfur began in 2003 when mainly non-Arab tribes took up arms against Sudan's Arab-led government. A joint AU/U.N. peacekeeping operation, known as UNAMID, has been on the ground for the past decade.
The United Nations says up to 300,000 people have been killed and millions displaced during the conflict.
Under the U.N. resolution adopted on Thursday, the troop ceiling will be cut to 11,395 from 15,485 in the first six months and the maximum police level would be reduced to 2,888 from 3,403. The council also asked Guterres and the AU to submit an assessment by Jan. 1, 2018.
That report would review implementation of the drawdown and impact on protection of civilians and access to aid, cooperation of the Sudanese government with the mission and "whether conditions on the ground remain conducive to further reductions."
Unless the Security Council decides otherwise, the peacekeeping mission would then cut its number further during the first half of 2018 to 8,735 troops and 2,500 police.
The council said there was a "need to keep the situation in all areas of Darfur under review" and that the "reconfiguration of UNAMID has to be effectively mitigated by an improved ability to respond to threats quickly and adequately."
The drawdown comes as the United States presses the United Nations to cut costs and become more efficient. U.N. states struck a deal on Wednesday on a $7.3 billion annual peacekeeping budget, diplomats said, cutting $600 million from current costs.
In January, the United States gave Sudan 180 days to improve its human rights record and resolve its political and military conflicts before Washington lifts some major unilateral economic sanctions.
The United States first imposed sanctions on Sudan in 1997, including a trade embargo and blocking the government's assets, for human rights violations and terrorism concerns. It layered on more sanctions in 2006 for what it said was complicity in the violence in Darfur.
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)