Chinese To Deploy Soldiers To Darfur

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 9, 2007

BEIJING, May 8 -- China will send a military engineering unit to help strengthen the overtaxed African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur, the Foreign Ministry announced Tuesday, following criticism that Beijing has not done enough to support peace efforts in the region.

A spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, did not say how many Chinese soldiers would be dispatched or what their duties would be, describing them as "multifunctional" military engineers. U.S. officials in Washington estimated the number at around 300, the Reuters news agency reported.

The decision to help bolster the 7,000 African Union peacekeepers was seen mainly as a gesture to underline Chinese support for a U.N.-administered solution to the four-year-old conflict in western Sudan's Darfur region. Since an armed secessionist revolt began there in 2003, as many as 450,000 people have died from violence and disease and about 2.5 million have fled their homes.

In recent weeks, the Darfur crisis has become particularly sensitive in China because of suggestions in the United States and Europe that people should boycott the 2008 Beijing Olympics to demonstrate opposition to Chinese policies in Sudan. China, which has deep economic and military ties there, has been widely criticized for failing to bring strong pressure on the government to persuade it to accept a large force of U.N. peacekeepers in Darfur.

The ties include large oil purchases and extensive arms sales. The human rights group Amnesty International recently charged that the purchases and sales have been continuing despite U.N. calls for an embargo. Jiang, the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, declined to respond to questions about the Amnesty charges. But she said China's arms sales to Sudan are strictly controlled, include only conventional weapons and do not violate U.N. regulations.

Five of the African Union peacekeepers were killed April 1, leading to warnings that the Darfur situation could deteriorate further unless more is done to stop the fighting. Clashes involving the Sudanese army, allied militias and a half-dozen rebel groups have erupted regularly despite a peace agreement reached a year ago. Fifteen A.U. soldiers have been killed since the peacekeepers were stationed in Darfur in 2004.

The U.N. Security Council decided in August to send more than 20,000 peacekeeping troops and police officers to halt the bloodshed, which the Bush administration has described as genocide. But the Sudanese government, headed by President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, has insisted that Sudanese authorities should retain control over the rebellious area and suggested that the African Union force should be allowed to do the job.

As negotiations continue about the full U.N. force, Bashir has accepted a 3,500-member interim U.N. force designed to strengthen the African Union units already on the spot. The Chinese engineers were being dispatched as part of those reinforcements, which have been called a "heavy support package," U.S. officials said.

Rejecting the criticism from abroad, Jiang said China also has "a positive attitude" toward getting the full-strength U.N. force to Darfur. Throughout the struggle, however, the Chinese government has insisted that whatever the United Nations does should first be approved by Bashir's government. Citing that stand, it abstained when the Security Council voted in August to send 20,000 peacekeepers.

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