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Sudan's Offensive Comes at Key Time
Push in Darfur Seen As Effort to Preempt Deployment by U.N.

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 5, 2006

KHARTOUM, Sudan, Sept. 4 -- The Sudanese government has dramatically intensified the war in Darfur in a bid to finish off a tenacious, three-year-old rebellion before a U.N. peacekeeping force can deploy there, say analysts, rebels and officials from the African Union monitoring mission.

Four months after what was hailed as a groundbreaking peace deal was signed in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, bombing raids on villages and increasingly aggressive ground attacks are allowing government forces to drive back rebels while also pushing tens of thousands of civilians into already overflowing camps.

The African Union's 7,000-member monitoring force, meanwhile, has been threatened with expulsion by the government and, under its current mandate, is scheduled to end its mission in Darfur by month's end. Many humanitarian groups have curtailed operations there because of the dangers presented by the new fighting.

Aid groups warn that conditions could grow far worse without the African Union's moderating influence and ability to provide crucial, if limited, protection for humanitarian operations such as food delivery and health care. Even with the African Union force in place, 12 humanitarian workers have been killed since the peace deal was signed May 5, including an International Rescue Committee nurse killed in fighting Friday.

The U.N. Security Council last week approved a peacekeeping force of up to 22,500 that would take the place of the African Union troops, but Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has sought to block it from being deployed. Two students were killed and 10 wounded in the North Darfur capital of El Fasher on Monday as troops violently dispersed a rally supporting the deployment of a U.N. force, news reports said.

The new push by government forces and the uncertainty surrounding peacekeeping efforts could produce a fundamental shift in the fighting in Darfur, where violence and disease have left as many as 450,000 people dead and 2 million homeless. Aid workers say that in recent weeks, civilian casualties, rapes and looting have grown more widespread. Tens of thousands of Darfuris have surged into camps, voting with their feet against a peace deal that many there regard as deeply flawed.

"There is no peace at all," said rebel leader Abubakar Hamid Nur, speaking by phone from North Darfur, the center of recent fighting. "There is a new phase of atrocities happening. . . . What they did in Abuja is not a sustainable peace."

Rebel leaders say they are mounting counterattacks where possible, but they acknowledge that they are giving up ground rather than face thousands of fresh, heavily armed government troops who have replaced the irregular militias that served as proxy fighters for much of the conflict. Some former rebels are now fighting on the side of the government and militias, giving the combined force unprecedented firepower along with detailed knowledge of treacherous mountain terrain.

Analysts say the growing offensive has left the anti-government forces in a precarious position at a time when flows of fuel and materiel from neighboring Chad have slowed as well.

"They might actually be defeated militarily this time," Ted Dagne, an Africa analyst for the Congressional Research Service, said from Washington. "The balance of power is going to shift in favor of the government. . . . What they want is to change the reality on the ground to make irrelevant the deployment of the international force."

Only one of three rebel groups signed the peace deal in May, and the two that vowed to continue fighting have joined forces against the government. The one group that signed, headed by Minni Minawi, meanwhile, has splintered, with some of its men fighting on behalf of the government and others against it. Minawi has joined Bashir's government as a senior official.

The fracturing of rebel groups has been so widespread and complex that even close observers of the conflict say it is no longer possible to say who controls much of the countryside in a vast, nearly roadless terrain the size of Texas.

Darfur's cities are all controlled by the government, and its forces there have been bolstered by thousands of new troops in recent months, said Lt. Col. Ferdinand Eze, military adviser to the African Union head of mission in Sudan. The government forces also have access to helicopter gunships and a growing number of armed trucks and heavy weapons. Russian-made Antonov planes, meanwhile, are being used for regular bombing raids.

Eze said the government offensive, which began Aug. 29, included the most extensive and coordinated fighting in Darfur in at least the past year. At the same time, the rebels have heavy weapons and an ability to move about the sparse region quickly.

"They are in a position to fight," Eze said, "but what one cannot say is for how long."

The U.S. government has accused the Sudanese government of genocide for its role in backing armed militias that have terrorized villages throughout the region. The International Criminal Court is investigating possible war crimes from the conflict. In the face of such international pressure, Sudanese officials have become increasingly bellicose, refusing to give their consent for a peacekeeping mission to Darfur and threatening to attack U.N. troops deployed there.

The government made clear its intentions in a plan submitted to the U.N. Security Council last month. Under the heading of "Getting control on the security situation and restoration of peace in Darfur," it called for a gradual buildup of 22,500 government troops, 4,000 members of Minawi's former rebel group and 7,050 national police officers. The government previously had relied on so-called Janjaweed militias to combat the Darfur rebels.

A letter from U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to Bashir on Aug. 25 called the plan "a significant departure" from the May peace plan and urged him not to proceed. "There can be no military solution to the conflict in Darfur," Annan wrote in the letter.

Last week's Security Council resolution "invites the consent" of the Sudanese government. U.S. officials have confidently predicted that it would come, but it has not.

On Sunday night, government officials even suggested that the African Union, of which Sudan is a member, should end its mission in Darfur. But by midday Monday, Sudanese officials softened their position, saying African Union officials could stay in Sudan so long as they did not become part of the U.N. peacekeeping effort.

"If the A.U. continues under its previous mandate, they will have no problem," said Jamal Ibrahim, a spokesman for Sudan's Foreign Ministry.

Eric Reeves, a Smith College professor who closely monitors Darfur, said the Sudanese government is working to drain the region of witnesses as it moves into a final battle against the rebels and their civilian supporters.

"No A.U., no humanitarian groups, this is a genocidal black box," said Reeves, speaking from Northampton, Mass. "We're not going to get any observers."

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