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Sudan Tribune

Plural news and views on Sudan

African Union says Darfur force to protect civilians

By William Maclean

ADDIS ABABA, July 8 (Reuters) – African Union troops due to go to Darfur to protect ceasefire monitors will not just “stand and stare” if civilians are attacked in the troubled region of western Sudan, AU officials said on Thursday.

Their assertions at the end of an AU summit were immediately challenged by the Sudanese government, which said that as far as it was concerned the troops would protect only monitors and state security forces would guard civilians.

Described by the United Nations as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, the situation in Darfur is seen by analysts and diplomats as a major test for the two-year-old AU, which is trying to win increased Western investment in return for ending wars and despotism and curbing corruption.

Asked by Reuters exactly whom the force would protect, AU chairman Olusegun Obasanjo told a news conference: “That’s what the name says — protection force.

“It will not be a protection force if it is there to prevent (violence) and protect lives and property and it just stands and stares while life and properties have been destroyed.”

The African Union plans to send 300 armed soldiers to Darfur to protect 60 AU officials monitoring a shaky ceasefire signed between the Sudanese government and rebels in April and officials say they could increase the numbers if necessary.

AU Commission Chairman Alpha Oumar Konare told reporters after the news conference the force would not stand idle if people were being killed in front of it.

“These forces that are coming are to protect the observation mission but they cannot remain passive when faced with human rights violations,” he said.

“We recommend that this force be deployed as quickly as possible and we really hope before the end of the month.”

TEST FOR AFRICA

The small AU force will attempt to patrol the overcrowded refugee camps and border areas between Sudan and Chad to check for ceasefire violations in an area where hundreds of thousands of people caught up in widespread looting and burning of villages by Arab “Janjaweed” militia in Sudan’s far west.

Sudan’s Islamist government, under heavy international pressure to stop attacks on black African civilians by militias of Arab heritage, has given its cautious approval.

But African leaders, including Sudan’s Omar Hassan al-Bashir, met for two hours earlier in the day to discuss whether to widen the mandate of the force.

AU leaders also discussed the possibility of enlarging the force.

“If they are not sufficient then we will reinforce them,” Chadian Foreign Minister Nagoum Yamassoum said, adding that the AU had the mandate to do that if necessary.

Rebels have said they have tens of thousands of troops but no one knows how many they really have.

Asked to comment on the AU statements, Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail said: “Sudan has no problem if you want to send protection forces but it is protection forces to protect the monitors (only). The protection of civilians is the responsibility of the Sudanese government.”

The Darfur mission would mark the AU’s only joint military deployment since it sent peacekeepers to Burundi in 2003.

The AU’s Peace and Security Council has urged Khartoum urgently to “neutralise” the Janjaweed militias and arrest and prosecute anyone responsible for bloodshed but said the violence was not genocide, a term used by some human rights groups.

The Khartoum government welcomed the ruling. Under international law, consensus among U.N. member states on the existence of a genocide requires them to prepare immediate steps to stop it.

After years of tension in Darfur between nomadic Arab tribes and African farmers, two groups rebelled last year, accusing Khartoum of arming the Janjaweed. Khartoum denies this.

Khartoum has agreed to attend AU-mediated talks on Darfur in Ethiopia on July 15, but the rebels say they will not negotiate unless Sudan disarms Arab militias and respects the ceasefire.

Konare said on Thursday: “We have asked the government of Sudan to do everything possible to facilitate the meeting of July 15. It is clear that if the bombardments continue and the Janjaweed attacks continue these will not be the best conditions to undertake dialogue on July 15.”

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who visited Sudan and Chad last week, said Darfur needed speedy action.

“We also realise that the situation in Darfur has to be dealt with quickly otherwise Sudan cannot talk in terms of comprehensive peace,” he told reporters in Nairobi on Thursday, referring to the separate southern Sudanese conflict which is on the verge of a final peace deal.

(Additional reporting by Opheera McDoom and Andrew Quinn in Addis Ababa, Stella Mapenzauswa in Nairobi)