British soldiers on standby to avert humanitarian disaster in Darfur

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British soldiers are being put on standby this weekend for possible deployment to Sudan as aid agencies warned that hundreds of thousands of lives could be at risk in the western region of Darfur.

British soldiers are being put on standby this weekend for possible deployment to Sudan as aid agencies warned that hundreds of thousands of lives could be at risk in the western region of Darfur.

Soldiers of the 12th Mechanised Infantry Brigade, based on Salisbury Plain, are being told that they might have to go to Sudan. Last week the UN Security Council gave the Khartoum government 30 days to take action against Arab militias, known as the Janjaweed, or face possible sanctions. But aid groups say the delay could see tens, possibly hundreds of thousands, of people die from starvation, disease and armed attack.

One aid worker who asked not to be named said: "With this resolution the government knows it can allow the Janjaweed to continue clearing villages for at least another two weeks before it has to pretend to start disarming them again. Khartoum certainly knows how to buy time, how to play the international scene."

The Sudanese government denies being behind the Janjaweed, but since fighting began early last year, up to 50,000 people have been killed. A million have been displaced and have moved into makeshift camps in Darfur and across the border in Chad, and another two million have little or no access to food, clean water and medicines.

The US Agency for International Development has warned that 300,000 people could die if aid does not reach them soon. Although aid agencies have begun to airlift food and vital medical supplies to the most remote regions, they warn that they do not have the funds to cover all the areas in need.

Yesterday the Sudanese government retreated from its earlier defiance of the UN, but continued to insist that the Security Council resolution was "unjustified". Khartoum has previously warned Britain and its allies not to send troops and to stay out of Darfur altogether. This month it took delivery of the last two of 12 Soviet MIG 29 fighter bombers.

Opposition from Sudan's forces - long suspected of arming and training the Janjaweed - would make the protection of an international aid effort hugely complex. It would mean that most supplies would have to come overground from the Mediterranean via Libya, possibly with forward staging posts in Chad. "It would be a very complicated logistical operation," a senior British Army logistician said. In a force of about 5,000 troops sent from Britain, at least 2,000 would have to be transport, engineering and communications experts.

One option would be to stage an airlift from the Red Sea and the French bases at Djibouti - but any threat of confrontation by Sudan's air force - which has more than 40 Russian and Chinese interceptors and bombers - would rule this out, according to air defence experts.

Fatima Mohammed Idriss is one of many who recently arrived at the Kalma camp in south Darfur. Sitting by a makeshift straw shelter, she said: "We left our village three months ago because people with guns on camels and horses burned down our village, leaving nothing standing. We went to Nyala and came here on Monday, and are waiting for any aid. We heard there was food here."

The UN World Food Programme has warned that the number of people at the camps is rising fast, and heavy rains and insecurity prevent it getting enough food to feed all the new arrivals. Kalma alone doubled in size in May, then tripled again to 75,000 people in July, and numbers are expected to rise again this month.

The Sudanese government promised to rein in the militia after a visit by the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, in early July, but human rights groups say the attacks on civilians and rapes have still continued. They had hoped that the UN would impose sanctions on Sudan straight away to stop the killings. However, the resolution does impose an immediate arms embargo on militia and rebels in Darfur.

Sudan's Information Minister, Al-Zahawi Ibrahim Malik, complained that the Security Council resolution focused too much on the Arab militias and not enough on the humanitarian issues. He added that the government "is capable of disarming all the looting and robbing gangs".

Meanwhile, African states also held a summit in Accra, the Ghanaian capital, last week to discuss the Darfur crisis. The African Union has sent 80 observers to Darfur, backed up by a protection force of 300 troops. Britain and the European Union have provided logistical and financial support but have so far not got directly involved. This is the first operation of its type by the African Union, and is a test of whether it can become an effective enforcer in the region.