By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 13, 2007
UNITED NATIONS -- The beleaguered African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur is on the verge of collapse, a development that is undercutting international efforts to protect civilians and deploy United Nations reinforcements, according to A.U. and U.N. officials.
The African Union's first major peacekeeping mission -- once considered the last line of defense for Darfur's civilians -- has been crippled by funding and equipment shortages, government harassment and an upsurge in armed attacks by rebel forces that last month left seven African troops dead.
The setbacks have sapped morale among peacekeepers, many of whom have not been paid for months. It has also compelled the force -- which numbered 7,000 troops at its peak -- to scale back its patrols and has diminished its capacity to protect civilians, aid workers and its own peacekeepers. In one example, Gambian troops last month failed to aid a Ghanaian peacekeeper who was gunned down in a carjacking incident within 300 yards of the mission's Darfur headquarters, U.N. officials said.
The crisis comes as the Sudanese government has renewed aerial bombardment in Darfur. And it has raised serious concerns among U.N. planners and outside experts about the viability of plans to deploy a joint U.N. and A.U. peacekeeping mission of up to 20,000 troops. Some governments that have committed to send troops and equipment to Darfur are either balking or failing to make good on their pledges.
"The risk is great that everything will collapse," African Union Chairman Alpha Oumar Konare warned last month during Darfur talks in New York. "Today, we have soldiers who have been waiting three or four months to be paid."
The violence in Darfur erupted in February 2003, when the Sudanese Liberation Army and another rebel group took up arms against the Islamic government, citing discrimination against black tribes. Sudan responded by training and equipping Arab militia, known as the Janjaweed, that killed hundreds of thousand of civilians suspected of backing the rebels and drove 2.5 million more from their homes.
The Bush administration has accused Khartoum of genocide and has argued that an expanded U.N. role in Darfur is key to ensuring the population's safety.
The A.U. presence -- known as the African Mission in Sudan -- was established in 2004 to monitor the violence and to prevent abuses against civilians and humanitarian aid workers in Darfur. The force quickly endeared itself to Darfur's displaced civilians, escorting women to forage for firewood, reporting atrocities, and mediating between warring factions.
But it has been plagued for several months by chronic shortages of funds and supplies, forcing members to patrol in jeeps without radio communications and borrow soap and food from private charities and U.N. humanitarian agencies.
Last month, five Senegalese soldiers were gunned down by followers of the Sudanese Liberation Army faction headed by rebel leader Minni Minawi, according to Senegalese and A.U. officials. Others have been beaten and robbed. One A.U. officer has been detained since December.
To improve security, Rwanda and Nigeria committed last year to send an additional 1,500 A.U. troops to Darfur to reinforce the mission. The United States contracted a U.S. company, Pacific Architects & Engineers, to construct barracks for the troops, but the plan was delayed because of a dispute over whether the United States or the United Nations would cover the costs.
Rwanda and Senegal have warned that they may withdraw if they do not receive financial support for the mission from Western donors. "What is the purpose of having them there just to sit in the sun," Rwandan President Paul Kagame told Reuters last week. "Things are not good, and the international community needs to act."
The deteriorating situation has aggravated a dispute between Khartoum, the African Union and the United Nations over who would lead and fund the expanded peacekeeping mission. The groups reached a compromise last month that provides for U.N. command of the overall U.N. mission in Sudan, with the African Union commanding operations in Darfur.
But Norway and Sweden, the only European nations that have expressed interest in participating in the Darfur mission, have rejected the accord. "We are not members of the African Union; we are members of the United Nations," said Raymond Johansen, Norway's deputy foreign minister. "It will not be easy for our troops to report to an African Union commander."
The two nations initially pledged to send about 250 military engineers to Darfur. But Johansen said that they have objected to a U.N. proposal to place them under the protection of A.U. troops, saying they would provide an additional 250 Scandinavian security forces to ensure the engineers' safety. U.N. officials said that Khartoum would probably oppose the deployment of European security forces.
The United Nations has begun discussions with other possible contributors, including Iran, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Thailand and Jordan, which has pledged to send six Cobra attack helicopter to the mission. China has promised to send a small unit of about 200 military engineers.
But many offers have not materialized. Egypt promised more than six months ago to provide 36 armored personnel carriers for the Darfur mission but hasn't furnished them, according to U.N. officials. Bangladesh has agreed to transfer troops currently stationed in Congo to Darfur. U.N. officials, however, say the troops are still needed in Congo.
Konare, meanwhile, has indicated that the African Union wants the United Nations to fund the expanded mission in Darfur but play a subservient role in running the mission. But wealthy donors are unlikely to accept the financial burden unless the United Nations administers the mission, U.N. officials said.
"The big money problem is that the Americans and the Europeans promised over the last decade that as long as the Africans deployed in these kinds of situations, we would pay for the soldiers and equip them. And we haven't done it," said John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group.
Alex de Waal, a British scholar who advised the African Union, said that while the A.U. force has stumbled, international donors have allowed it to "wither on the vine."
"You don't put a force into horribly difficult situation, where they are being shot at and having their soldiers killed and then tell them that they're second-rate and deprive them of resources," he said.