UN Contemplates Military Operation for Darfur


By Evelyn Leopold

December 4, 2005

A joint military team will visit Darfur next week to study whether the United Nations should take over efforts to bring order to Sudan's lawless west, U.N. officials and diplomats said on Sunday. Led by the African Union, the mission, from Dec. 10 to Dec. 20, will include experts from the United States, the European Union as well as the United Nations. Under discussion is folding the African Union's existing Darfur peacekeeping operation into a U.N. Sudan mission established last March to support a peace agreement between Khartoum and former rebels in the south of Sudan that ended two decades of war. But it might take until September to deploy such an expanded mission, and it is uncertain whether the African Union would agree to wind up or combine its own operation into a U.N.-led force, the envoys said.

Sudan also would have to consent to non-African troops, which could number up to 10,000 and, like the African Union, would have to scramble to get enough soldiers for what one envoy called "a robust and mobile" force. "For now there has to be further support for the African Union," one Security Council diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "In the longer term, there is going to be a need for a sustained peacekeeping force. So the African Union and the United Nations have to begin now to look at what is feasible in 2006."

About 6,000 African Union troops and police are trying to stop escalating violence in Darfur, but those in charge say they lack the vehicles and communications equipment needed to operate effectively in the desert region the size of France. In Abuja, Nigeria, Festus Okonkwo, the military head of the union's mission told Reuters, "If you are supposed to move people with 20 vehicles and you are moving them with six vehicles, you can understand the problems. It's affecting everything." The rebels are involved in peace talks with the government in Abuja, but militia allied to Khartoum are still raping and harassing civilians herded into camps in what Annan has called a descent into complete lawlessness.

Tens of thousands of Sudanese have been killed since a revolt in Darfur began in early 2003 by non-Arab villagers who accused the government of neglect and repression. More than 2 million people have been forced out of their homes. Okonkwo, a Nigerian, said he hoped the 10-day assessment mission would address the African Union's problems and decide whether more troops were needed. There are 5,618 AU soldiers and observers on the ground, he said. The figure falls short of the 6,171-strong force that was supposed to have been deployed by the end of September. Most of the troops are from Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa and Ghana.

Unlike U.N. peacekeeping missions, financed from the world body's budget, the AU relies on the whim of donor nations, which pledged $300 million in May. The U.S. Congress voted in November to cut $50 million for the AU's Darfur mission. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick said cash would be allocated from other areas to meet the $50 million shortfall, but troops in Darfur say they are wondering if they will get paid next week. African Union forces have been targeted by combatants in Darfur and suffered their first casualties in October when four soldiers were killed in an ambush. As the latest round of peace talks in Abuja opened, a breakaway rebel faction attacked and injured five AU soldiers.

During a recent Arab militia raid on Tama village in South Darfur, union troops initially refused to enter the village saying they were too scared, witnesses said. Rebels cite this weakness for their refusal to relinquish control of some towns in South Darfur to the African Union. "Even right now in Marla (town) the government is attacking civilians in front of the AU," rebel Sudan Liberation Army spokesman Esam Elhag said.

(Additional reporting by Opheera McDoom reported from Abuja)

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