By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
UNITED NATIONS, April 16 -- Sudan agreed on Monday to allow more than 3,000 heavily armed U.N. and African peacekeepers in Darfur to reinforce a beleaguered African Union force of 7,000 that has struggled to prevent the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of civilians during the past four years. But U.N. officials said it could be more than six months before foreign troops land in the region.
Still, the agreement marked a critical new phase in a plan to gradually expand the United Nations' presence and power in Darfur, where government-backed militia stand accused of killing 200,000 to 400,000 civilians and driving more than 2.5 million from their homes. The United Nations ultimately hopes to oversee a joint force with the African Union with more than 20,000 troops, police and civil servants.
The Bush administration responded with skepticism, noting that Khartoum has backtracked on previous agreements to allow U.N. troops into Darfur. "We've been down this path before," said Alejandro D. Wolff, the acting U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. "So we will see if it happens when it happens." But British diplomats said they are likely to hold off plans to introduce sanctions against Sudan until it has had a chance to show it can carry out the agreement.
U.N. officials said the announcement would shift attention from Khartoum to the U.N. effort to assemble a peacekeeping force. Jean-Marie Guehenno, the top U.N. peacekeeping official, will meet Thursday with representatives of governments considering sending troops to Darfur. So far, the United Nations has faced resistance from potential contributing countries who are loath to have their troops serve under the African Union. U.N. military planners are also awaiting the arrival of about 1,500 African Union troops to Darfur to provide additional security for the new force.
Monday's announcement marked rare progress in a two-year effort to expand the U.N. presence. "This is a very positive sign," U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said following a meeting with African Union Chairman Alpha Oumar Konare. He said the two men intend "to move quickly" to prepare a force. "The people in Darfur have suffered too much and too long."
Khartoum, meanwhile, continued to voice concern about the role of the United Nations, saying it expected the African Union to lead the mission. The groups reached a compromise that provides for U.N. command of the overall U.N. mission in Sudan, with the African Union commanding operations in Darfur.
Sudan has opposed a full-fledged U.N. mission in Darfur out of concern about arrests of Sudanese officials accused of war crimes by the International Criminal Court. It has also raised concern about the right of foreign peacekeepers to use force to protect civilians. "It is our responsibility to protect the civilians; nobody can take it from us," said Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem Mohamad, Sudan's ambassador to the United Nations. "This is a sovereign right."
The violence in Darfur began in February 2003, when two Darfurian rebel groups launched raids on government police stations. In response, Khartoum's Islamic government organized and armed Arab militia -- known as the Janjaweed -- as they swept across the countryside, destroying hundreds of villages and killing large numbers of inhabitants suspected to be rebel sympathizers.
The fighting has sparked fears of a wider war as violence has spread to the Central African Republic and Chad.
The Bush administration initially accused Khartoum and the Janjaweed of committing genocide, but U.N. and U.S. officials say that they doubt the government is fully in control of the militias and that many of the recent atrocities have been committed by members of a factionalized rebel movement.
Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte arrived Monday in Khartoum, where he pressed the government to protect civilians in Darfur and urged the Darfurian rebels to make peace. "The government of Sudan must disarm the Janjaweed," he said.
Khartoum first agreed to a phased transition from an African Union force to a beefed-up joint operation with the United Nations in November. But it later reneged, saying key provisions violated the terms of a previous peace accord it signed with Darfur's largest rebel group. U.N. officials said they expect to face continued difficulties as they move ahead.
The final agreement came after Sudan dropped its objections to the United Nations' use of six attack helicopters. Khartoum's U.N. envoy said his government agreed after receiving personal assurances from Ban that they would not be used to battle Sudanese security forces.