Nato poised for first African engagement in Darfur

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The Independent Online

Nato is on the verge of its first mission in sub-Saharan Africa, after the African Union turned to the transatlantic alliance for logistical help for its monitoring operations in Sudan's conflict-ravaged Darfur region.

Nato is on the verge of its first mission in sub-Saharan Africa, after the African Union turned to the transatlantic alliance for logistical help for its monitoring operations in Sudan's conflict-ravaged Darfur region.

Within hours of receiving the request, Nato's ambassadors gave the go-ahead for talks on how it can help assist the AU's observation mission and discussions will start "as soon as possible", Nato said.

There is no prospect of alliance soldiers being committed to the operation, which will probably focus on providing transport and other technical needs.

Nato involvement has been encouraged by the US, which pressed the case at a recent meeting of the alliance's foreign ministers in Vilnius, Lithuania, in the face of French resistance. France has already sent a deployment in the region. The African sub-continent had been seen as an obvious sphere of operations for the EU's new military force which mounted a mission to Congo two years ago.

One French idea for Darfur was that its logistical support and air surveillance operation, based in Chad, might be turned into an EU military mission. That prospect seems less likely following yesterday morning's written request to Nato from Alpha Oumar Konare, the chairman of the AU Commission, who is expected to visit the alliance's Brussels headquarters next month.

James Appathurai, Nato's chief spokesman, said: "What has to be decided is what the AU needs and what is already provided and whether Nato can add value.But certainly this is the first time Nato would be engaged in any significant way in sub-Saharan Africa." The Sudanese government insists only African troops can be involved in intervention and other Nato and EU diplomats are frustrated by the limited progress made by the AU. "It is a question of choosing the most appropriate organisation for the operation," one official said.

Tens of thousands of people have been killed and more than two million have fled their homes during the last two years of violence in Darfur involving Arab militias, non-Arab rebels and Sudanese government forces in the province.

The deployment of more than 2,000 African Union peace monitors has helped calm the situation in some areas. But the force remains small relative to its task, and its mandate is limited, preventing it from enforcing the peace. It is likely, however, that the AU force will be given a stronger mandate to protect civilians who are under threat.

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