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AU Pledges More Troops in Darfur Despite Sudanese Opposition

The African Union pledged more military troops to Sudan Monday to protect the civilian in case an Arab militia resumes attacks on them, however, the Sudanese opposition to a larger AU presence in the troubled Darfur region might prove tricky to the deployment.

AU's pledge

The pledge was announced by Patrick Mazhimaka, deputy chairman of the Commission of the African Union, at the official opening of the summit of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

"By Aug. 15, 155 Rwandan troops arrived in the Sudan at Al Fashir. A similar number is expected from Nigeria by Aug. 25 at the latest. The expansion of these forces to a peacekeeping capacity is currently being considered," Mazhimaka said.

"This is essential in order to give ourselves sufficient capacity to protect the civilian population in case the militia resume attacks on them," he added.

The Darfur crisis unfold in February last year, when the indigenous farmers rose against the Khartoum government. The situation in Darfur has attracted international concern only this year, after high-profile visits by US Secretary of State Colin Powell and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The United Nations has said the situation in Darfur tantamount to the world's current worst humanitarian crisis, where about 30,000-50,000 civilians were killed since the fighting started, the bulk of which blamed on an Arab militia called the "Janjaweed."

"We are gravely concerned about the developments in the Sudan and are taking decisive measures to bring the protracted conflicts to an end," Mazhimaka said while addressing heads of state and government from 13 southern African countries.

The AU has deployed 123 military monitors to the Darfur region to oversee an April ceasefire between Khartoum and two rebel groups in Darfur, and the AU has decided in the bloc's summit last month to send a about 300 "protection force" to protect the monitors.

The forces were expected to protect civilians as well. Rwandan President Paul Kagame has said the security of Darfur people ought to be defended if they are attacked, when he was bidding farewell to Rwandan troops to Sudan on Saturday. AU Chairman Olusegun Obasanjo made similar remarks when at the AU summit.

But whether this tiny force and contingent of monitors can do this job in a vast region like Darfur, roughly the size of Kenya, is hotly debated, and the United Nations and the AU have both said a deployment of another 2,500 AU peacekeepers is being considered. 

Sudan's opposition

But without Sudanese consent, an African peacekeeping force might not come any time soon, as the Khartoum government voicing opposition to such a large AU presence.
Last Friday, Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir said his government will not accept foreign interference in Darfur in any case.

"We are not willing to accept any foreign forces, because honestly foreign forces will only complicate the situation," he said.

In a radio address on Saturday, Omar Al-Bashir blamed unnamed "plotters" and "enemies" for the crisis in Darfur and said his government forces were able to end the 18-month conflict and restore security and stability in Darfur. The AU has acknowledged that security of Darfur is a Sudanese responsibility, with Mazhimaka saying at the SADC summit, "the protection of civilians remains the responsibility of the government of Sudan."

The UN Security Council passed a resolution on July 30, giving the Sudanese government 30 days to disarm the Janjaweed or face international sanctions.

The Sudanese government said it has begun implementing what it called "Plan of Action for Darfur," reached with the United Nations to set up safe areas in the Darfur region.

According to the plan reached on Aug. 5, the Sudanese government was given 30 days to set up safe areas in the existing refugee camps and densely populated towns in Darfur so that civilians can get food and water and resume farming without fear of attack.

Refugees not returning home 

However, the situation doesn't seem to improve much in the area. As the rainy season starts, many parts of Darfur are now difficult for aid to reach, and the squalid refugee camps have become breeding ground for disease. Relief agencies have said over 300,000 to one million might die in the region if the situation doesn't turn around.

"A real test case is the horrifying situation in the Darfur region of the Sudan where more than a million people have been displaced, with a thousand dying each day mostly of hunger related diseases," said Mazhimaka.

Security is most essential for the Sudanese refugees to return home. But despite the deployment of monitors and protection forces and the Sudanese promise, there has been a new upsurge of Sudanese refugees fleeing across the border into Chad on Sunday amid reports of renewed military activity in Darfur.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR said about 500 people crossed the border close to the Chadian village of Berak and further north in Bahai. Tens of thousands of people flocked from the surrounding desert to watch their arrival.

On the edge of Darfur's El Fashir, a vast city of tents and makeshift huts is home to thousands of displaced people. UN special envoy Jan Pronk has said he wanted many more African observers in Darfur.

Pronk said progress had been made in talks with the Sudanese government about the establishment of 20-km wide safe areas around giant refugee camps in Darfur.

Under the proposal, which is expected to be finalized in the coming days, neither soldiers nor the pro-government Janjaweed militia would be able to carry weapons of any kind in these areas. Despite the progress in Khartoum, Pronk acknowledged that fighting was continuing in Darfur, with Janjaweed fighters ignoring official instructions to end attacks. 

With the Sudanese reluctance to accept peacekeepers, political settlement might be the most practical way to end the sufferings of the Darfur people.

Peace talks are due to take place in Abuja on Aug. 23 between all parties in the conflict - the Sudanese government and the two rebel groups. Pronk said the talks will go ahead despite uncertainty about whether the rebel groups, who walked out of the Addis Ababa talks last month, will attend.

(Xinhua News Agency August 18, 2004)

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