U.N. Official Warns of Major New Sudanese Offensive in Darfur

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 18, 2006

Three months since the signing of a tenuous peace deal, Sudan appears to be preparing a major military offensive in its troubled Darfur region, aid workers are increasingly at risk, and the population "may have to relive the horrors of late 2003 and early 2004, and hundreds of thousands of lives will be at risk," a top United Nations official warned the Security Council in a private briefing yesterday.

The blunt assessment by the deputy head of the U.N. peacekeeping forces, Hedi Annabi, came as Britain and the United States introduced a Security Council resolution to send 17,000 U.N. peacekeepers to Darfur over the opposition of Khartoum. China and Russia, however, suggested they would reject the resolution, and the Sudanese government reiterated its opposition to a U.N. force.

The force is intended to replace an African Union mission, which has proved ineffective at halting the violence. Annabi told the council that the African Union force is "plagued by funding shortfalls that could force its withdrawal a few weeks from now," according to a copy of his remarks.

He said the force of 6,171 military personnel and 1,560 civilian police "is by all accounts an inadequate force for the task at hand" and is "highly unlikely" to continue beyond September without more funding.

The conflict broke out in early 2003 when two African rebel groups attacked police stations and military outposts in Darfur. The United Nations and human rights groups accuse the Arab-led central government of supporting militiamen, called the Janjaweed, in order to crush the rebellion.

About 2,000 villages have been destroyed across Darfur, and violence and disease have left as many as 450,000 people dead and 2 million homeless.

Two years ago in September, then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell accused the Khartoum government of being complicit in genocide, but little has since been accomplished to end the suffering.

The Darfur Peace Agreement was signed by the government and the leader of one rebel group faction in May, after heavy pressure from Robert B. Zoellick, then deputy secretary of state and the administration's point man on Sudan. Zoellick resigned in June to join a Wall Street investment house, and the administration has not named a replacement and has ignored calls from Congress for a special Sudan envoy.

The agreement brokered by Zoellick sought to dismantle marauding militias, fold thousands of rebel forces into the national army and pave the way to wealth- and power-sharing between the central government and an impoverished area the size of France. U.S. officials said the deal was necessary to persuade Khartoum to accept the U.N. force, but other rebel groups refused to sign.

President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has since declared that Sudan's army will fight any U.N. forces sent to Darfur, even though U.N. forces are already based in the southern part of the country to monitor a separate accord.

Khartoum has told the United Nations that it plans to deploy 26,500 armed forces to Darfur by year's end, which would violate the peace agreement, Annabi said. He said there are reports that the buildup of forces has already commenced and that extra battalions have been deployed.

Annabi told the Security Council that since the signing of the deal, "instead of reconciliation and building of trust, we see more violence and further polarization."

Eleven aid workers have been killed since the signing of the peace agreement, "an unprecedented level of deadly attacks," and humanitarian organizations have access to only half of the 3.6 million people affected by the conflict, he said. He said aid workers may be forced to withdraw completely from North Darfur, where more than 1.2 million need help.

The peace agreement lacks the support of larger segments of the population, Annabi added. Minni Minnawi, the rebel leader who signed the accord, is from a different ethnic group than is much of the Darfur population, adding to the tensions, experts have said.

Annabi said the violence between the rebel groups since the accord was signed has "resulted in hundreds of deaths, systematic looting, new displacements and horrendous acts of sexual and gender-based violence."

Staff writer Colum Lynch at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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