The United Nations secretary-general said last night that Sudan had agreed "in principle" to a compromise peace plan for Darfur, after government-backed Arab militias opened a second front in the conflict by massacring villagers in neighbouring Chad.
News of the late-night agreement at a meeting in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, convened by Kofi Annan came with the conflict spreading across the border into Chad, and with attacks on civilians in Darfur increasing. It remains to be seen whether the agreement will be a breakthrough or another attempt by the Khartoum government to play for time.
The Arab militias have killed several hundred civilians in Chad in the past 10 days, according to Human Rights Watch. The non-Arab villagers only have spears and poisoned arrows to defend themselves against the Arab fighters armed with machine-guns.
In Darfur, the slaughter of the black African villagers has also been stepped up. In one raid, rebels said the government-backed Janjaweed militia forced children into a thatched hut, then set it on fire, before killing parents who tried to rescue their children.
On the Chadian side of the border, the chief of the village of Bandikao was killed along with two others on 4 November. "Armed with bows and arrows and machetes, men from the village tried to retrieve the bodies and were ambushed and massacred. Men from surrounding villages armed with poisoned arrows arrived to do battle with the Arab nomads, who cut them down with automatic weapons," HRW said.
Eyewitnesses say that the attacks are carried out by a mixture of Chadians and Sudanese. In another attack earlier this week, two women were tied up by the Arab militia and burnt inside their hut. "They wanted to steal the blankets and the women begged them not to," said a 21-year-old Chadian hurt in the attack.
The Sudanese government and its allied militia unleashed a campaign of ethnic cleansing in 2003 to crush a rebellion by the ethnic African villagers of Darfur, which has now left about 200,000 people dead and forced an estimated 2.5 million from their homes.
Cross-border clashes have spread the conflict into Chad, and the Central African Republic is trying to cope with a large influx of refugees. An international refugee agency was expelled on Wednesday by the Sudanese government, on the grounds that it was preventing displaced people from returning to their villages. Other relief agencies have pulled out or scaled back activities because of government-imposed travel restrictions.
When the leading UN humanitarian official Jan Egeland arrived in western Darfur yesterday, the security was so bad he could not visit camps outside el-Geneina town. He was informed by the government that all his proposed destinations on a three-day trip to Darfur were too insecure to visit.
"We're seeing a regional war against civilians, with armed groups on both sides of the border actively supported or tolerated by the Sudanese and Chadian governments," said Peter Takirambudde, Africa director of HRW. He said that the intensification of the conflict meant that the need for a reinforced international force for Darfur was all the more urgent.
Khartoum has rejected calls for an enlarged UN force to absorb a weak African Union force of 7,000 at the end of the year. The compromise deal envisages a "hybrid" UN-AU force, which was accepted "in principle" by Sudan last night. However, important details remain to be negotiated, including the size of the force and the command.
"The UN says 17,000 [troops]. That figure is very high. We think 11,000 to 12,000," said Sudan's UN ambassador, Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem Mohamad. The UN, AU, US and EU, who all sent representatives to the meeting at AU headquarters in Addis Ababa with the Sudanese Foreign Minister, back the plan for a hybrid force whose command and control structure would be provided by the UN.
A survivor's story
"Some of the wounded were not dead. Their families went to get them and were killed. I went to get the body of the village chief, my brother. I went with arrows.
The Arabs were hiding in the trees. They were shooting anything that moves. I came with seven or 10 others. Three are now dead. I was wounded with one other.
From 8pm until 2am the men tried to recover the bodies of the dead and to save the wounded. Forty were killed at night. Many of the wounded then bled to death. 40 were buried and 17 left behind."Reuse content