Indictment of Sudanese Leader Seen as Threat to Peacekeepers

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 20, 2008

UNITED NATIONS -- Six days before Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir was charged with genocide, a group of 200 fighters on horseback, supported by more than 40 vehicles mounted with machine guns, carried out the bloodiest and most sophisticated ambush yet on a fledgling U.N. and African peacekeeping mission.

The July 8 attack -- which killed seven peacekeepers and wounded 22 -- bore similarities to Sudanese-backed raids by Janjaweed horsemen that have led to the deaths of more than 300,000 civilians and forced nearly 3 million people from their homes in Darfur over the past five years, according to internal U.N. accounts.

Some U.N. officials suspect the operation was intended to serve as a warning to U.N. peacekeepers and humanitarian workers of Sudan's intent to use deadly force if the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court targeted the country's leader. On Wednesday, those fears were heightened after a Nigerian company commander was killed by unidentified assailants in the town of Forobaranga in West Darfur.

"We are very worried there could be a gradual increase in violence, which could make the mission quite vulnerable," Jean-Marie Guéhenno, the U.N. undersecretary general for peacekeeping, said in an interview. But it "will be very hard to pin down responsibility" for the attacks, he predicted.

The Sudanese government has strenuously denied involvement in the attack, accusing a rebel faction, the SLA-Unity, of responsibility. U.N. peacekeeping officials said that Sudanese authorities actually improved cooperation in the days following the announcement of the charges against Bashir. The U.N. case, said Sudan's U.N. envoy, Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem Mohamad, "doesn't hold water."

The episode has exposed the vulnerability of an international mission that has been held up by the United States and other governments as offering the best chance of protecting Darfur's people. The force of more than 9,000 peacekeepers is plagued by "serious shortfalls in communications, logistics, medical evacuation and treatment and air support," Guéhenno told the U.N. Security Council in a confidential briefing on Friday. A more than two-year effort to secure attack and transport helicopters has stalled, leaving the peacekeepers unable to defend themselves from superior ground attacks. Guéhenno warned the council that the force "will continue to be extremely vulnerable in the months ahead."

U.N. officials vowed to continue to protect civilians in Darfur and ensure they received lifesaving humanitarian assistance. On Wednesday, a unit of 172 Chinese engineers arrived to reinforce the mission, which has deployed about 9,000 of the 26,000 peacekeepers required for the operation. More troops from Ethiopia and Egypt are scheduled to arrive in the coming weeks.

It is the second time the U.N. mission in Darfur has come under attack this year. In January -- just two weeks after the U.N.-backed mission replaced a beleaguered African Union mission of 7,000 African troops -- Sudanese forces opened fire on a clearly marked supply convoy of 20 trucks and armored personnel vehicles. Sudan's U.N. envoy blamed the attack on rebels, but the Sudanese commander admitted that his troops had fired on the peacekeepers, by accident.

Critics of the government say Sudan has long used proxy military forces to carry out strikes while denying government involvement. "I think this is the first shot across the bow in response to the ICC action," said John Prendergast, co-chair of the Darfur advocacy group the Enough Project. "There will be more of these kinds of proxy attacks."

But others maintain the evidence is not strong enough to prove government involvement. "We don't have enough evidence to say it was the government," a senior U.S. official said. "We've got lots of strands of evidence, but we really don't know."

Guéhenno said in the interview that an investigation is underway to establish responsibility for the July 8 attacks. In the meantime, he has ordered the relocation of about 200 civilian U.N. staff from Darfur and concentrated his peacekeepers in safer locations. In the Friday confidential briefing to the council, he suggested Sudanese complicity.

In a written account of the briefing, obtained by The Washington Post, Guéhenno said that the operation was conducted in a government-controlled area and that the assailants used powerful weapons not used previously be Darfurian rebels. "There is some very disquieting circumstantial evidence," said Britain's U.N. ambassador, John Sawers, who attended the briefing.

Concealed in a wooded shelter, and using pre-positioned weapons, the assailants opened fire on the smaller contingent of 65 U.N. peacekeepers, crippling the lead vehicle carrying the convoy's communications gear. "The patrol lost communication with the sector headquarters almost immediately following the destruction of its high frequency radio set," according to the briefing notes.

The peacekeepers "reported the appearance, armament and equipment of most of the attackers as being similar to that of the 'Janjaweed,' they also indicated that some assailants were dressed in clothing more akin to a uniform," Guéhenno told the council. "The employment of an anti-tank recoilless rifle," he added, "a weapon not normally used by irregular militias, is also a new element of grave concern."

Guéhenno said that U.N. peacekeepers returned fire but that the attackers quickly regrouped and launched a second and more violent attack. The dead included peacekeepers from Rwanda, Ghana and Uganda. The "deliberate, large-scale, and sustained attack on a relatively strong [peacekeeper] patrol constitutes a significant escalation in the risks to the mission," Guéhenno said. He added that the joint U.N.-A.U. mission will need "many more months" to build the force up to its full strength.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon raised concerns about possible Sudanese government involvement in a telephone conversation with Bashir last weekend, according to Mohamad, the Sudanese U.N. envoy. But Mohamad blamed the rebels for the attack. "The national army doesn't have the equipment" used in the attack, he said. "It's very sophisticated."

Mohamad sharply criticized Guéhenno, who will retire this summer, saying he has always taken a "negative" and "confrontational" approach to Sudan.

"We are happy that he's leaving," he said.

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