Bankrupt peacekeeping mission leaves Darfur civilians exposed

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The Independent Online

The humanitarian crisis in Darfur is likely to worsen after the future of the African Union's peacekeeping mission was cast into doubt. News that Khartoum is poised to take over the presidency of the AU has been greeted with dismay as government-backed militias in Darfur had been accused of genocide.

Discussions are under way for the United Nations to take over the near-bankrupt peacekeeping mission, while critics of the AU were calling their first outing a "disastrous failure". The UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, has said AU forces in Darfur have been unable to stop the civil war that has raged in the arid western region for three years, and needs more funding if it is to carry out its job properly. Jan Pronk, the UN's special envoy to Darfur, also said only a robust peacekeeping force with a stronger mandate could end the violence.

Aid agencies which have operated in Darfur said it was vital for any peacekeeping force in the region to have a stronger mandate to act. Oxfam's regional director Paul Smith-Lomas said: "Overall security [in Darfur] has rapidly deteriorated since last August. The AU mission in Sudan urgently requires a strengthened mandate so that it can respond to this alarming security situation and protect civilians in Darfur. The international community must not... take its eye off the most urgent priority, which is protecting civilians now."

Rebel agencies in Darfur also welcomed the proposals, but the Sudanese government said it would not support any moves by the UN to take control of peacekeeping in the region.

The Sudanese Foreign Minister, Lam Akol, said: "The AU has shown competence and its performance in Darfur has been good. Such a proposal questions the AU's ability to carry out its mission. It is regrettable that some African countries support this new trend."

The AU insisted that, as a member, Sudan would have to comply with any decision to allow a UN deployment, but Khartoum has insisted it will not allow non-African peacekeepers inside Darfur.

The AU has long complained that it does not have enough funding to allow its 7,000 troops in Darfur to carry out their job effectively. They also say the Sudanese government has blocked the arrival of vital supplies. In October, three Nigerian AU soldiers died in an ambush carried out by the Sudanese Liberation Army, and other troops have been held hostage.

The proposals come as Sudan launched its attempts to take control of the AU in the face of strong opposition from aid agencies and human rights groups. The 53 AU member states will vote on who should take the chair of the organisation from Nigeria, at its summit next week in Khartoum. The Sudanese President, Umar al-Bashir, is a strong contender but critics have warned that the AU will lose all credibility to mediate peace talks to end the conflict in western Darfur if the organisation is controlled by one of the participants. The International Criminal Court is investigating the Sudanese government, militias and the rebel movements for violations of international law.

Peter Takirambudde, from the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said: "It would be highly inappropriate for the Sudanese government, which is responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, to preside over the AU. The AU's credibility and its ability to promote and protect human rights, would be irreparably damaged."

Khartoum has said Nigeria would still host peace talks on Darfur, even if it is no longer head of the AU. The talks have collapsed several times as the participants were unable to agree on matters of protocol.