U.N. Peacekeepers in Darfur Unlikely

The Associated Press
Thursday, September 28, 2006; 7:11 PM

KHARTOUM, Sudan -- The U.N. chief in Sudan said Thursday the government is unlikely to let U.N. peacekeepers in the country anytime soon, and the international community should instead push for the African Union force to remain in the war-torn region indefinitely.

The comments came after Sudanese authorities and a Darfur rebel group that signed a peace agreement with the government clashed in an affluent neighborhood of Omdurman, a city across the river from Khartoum. The incident underscored the simmering tensions in the country.

A U.N. Security Council resolution calls for 20,000 peacekeepers to replace the ill-equipped and underfunded AU force that has done little to prevent escalating violence in Darfur. But Sudan's president fiercely rejects the U.N. mission, and it can't deploy without his consent.

"I don't expect the government to accept a U.N. transition any time soon," Jan Pronk, the U.N. chief envoy to Sudan, told The Associated Press. "The international community should instead push for the African Union's mission to be prolonged and reinforced."

He called for the AU force to be extended indefinitely to prevent jeopardizing humanitarian work in Darfur, where more than 200,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million displaced in three years of fighting.

At least 350,000 people are cut off from any aid in North Darfur because of the intensified fighting there, the U.N. said. At least another 100,000 people have fled their homes.

Pronk said he was confident the Sudanese government would allow the African troops to stay on in the region, though for now Khartoum only has agreed to keeping them an extra three months.

Pronk also urged the international community to guarantee more funds for the AU force. He said there were reports the AU force was so strapped for cash that some soldiers in Darfur were not being fed and patrols weren't going out because there was no gas for their armored vehicles.

The current 7,000-strong AU force was due to leave Darfur at the end of September but recently prolonged its mission until the end of the year. John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., called it a temporary measure while the international community pressures Sudan to allow troops into the country.

Earlier this week, Sudan's top official for Darfur said the government was willing to let a trickle of U.N. military advisers join the AU forces, describing it as "a third way" that could resolve the stand off between Khartoum and the United Nations.

Pronk said these discussions were now being settled and the first batch of 105 U.N. military advisers and dozens of police could be sent to Darfur "very soon." He hinted that their numbers could be increased "in a step by step process."

Meanwhile, the AU has pledged to boost its force by up to 4,000 troops. Some of the soldiers would be immediately available, but the AU says it doesn't have the cash to send them in.

The U.N. chief maintained that the peace agreement signed in May between the government and the rebel faction was "in a coma," which he said reflects the worsening humanitarian situation.

Both government forces and rebels have violated the cease-fire more than 70 times between May and August, and there were new violations in September after Khartoum launched a large-scale offensive in northern Darfur, Pronk said.

On Thursday, tensions degenerated into an open shootout in Omdurman, Khartoum's sister city. Rebel leaders with the Sudan Liberation Movement say they took three police officers hostage in retaliation for the arrests of two of their members.

Pronk said one man was killed during the clashes. "That (the conflict) has now reached Khartoum is just another proof of how bad things are," he said.

© 2006 The Associated Press