By Opheera McDoom
Sunday, June 11, 2006
KHARTOUM, Sudan, June 10 -- Officials from the United Nations and the African Union opened talks in Khartoum on Saturday as part of a painstaking process to persuade the Sudanese government to allow U.N. troops to take over peacekeeping operations in Darfur.
About 7,000 ill-equipped African Union troops are monitoring a shaky truce in Darfur, a region of western Sudan wracked by three years of conflict. Unable to prevent attacks and running out of cash, the A.U. force has asked for the United Nations to take over the struggling mission, a move the Sudanese government has rejected.
"The United Nations never imposes itself on any country," Jean-Marie Guehenno, the U.N. undersecretary general for peacekeeping operations, told reporters after the team met with the Sudanese foreign minister, Lam Akol. "All our peacekeeping operations in Africa are deployed with the cooperation of the host country."
Sudan rejects the transition to U.N. forces in Darfur, painting the move as a Western invasion of an Islamic country that would attract militants. Al-Qaeda's deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, on Friday called the Sudanese government "spineless" for allowing the assessment mission to enter Sudan.
Analysts, however, contend that Sudanese leaders are concerned that U.N. troops might be used to arrest officials or militia leaders who could be indicted by the International Criminal Court, which is investigating war crimes in Darfur.
Akol said military and technical experts from the team would be leaving for Darfur on Tuesday. Asked whether the Sudanese government had changed its position, he said, "Any decisions of any sort will be taken after" the trip to Darfur.
The team will then return to Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, for further talks. The mission, which arrived on Friday, is expected to last about 18 days.
A U.N. Security Council delegation on its first visit to Sudan a few days earlier was unable to persuade President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to accept a U.N. mission.
Tens of thousands of people have died and 2.5 million forced from their homes during more than three years of violence in Darfur. The crisis began in February 2003, when African rebel groups in Darfur launched an uprising against the Arab-led government, which responded by unleashing Arab militias known as the Janjaweed. The government denies backing the Janjaweed, who have been accused of atrocities, but agreed under a truce reached last month to disarm and disband them.
Akol said the joint team could not tell Sudanese leaders what the mandate and aim of a possible U.N. mission in Darfur would be until after they had visited the region and assessed what was required.
But the United Nations would have to move fast. The A.U. has a mandate only until Sept. 30 and is struggling to find funds to sustain the mission until then.
The cease-fire, mediated last month, was signed by only one of three main Darfur rebel factions. Thousands of people in Darfur have staged protests almost daily against the deal, frustrated at the AU's inability to stop attacks.