Sudan warns UN against a 'hostile invasion' of Darfur

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The Independent Online

Darfur is at a "critical stage", the UN secretary general has warned, after the Sudanese government served notice that any attempt to dispatch a UN force to the troubled region would be considered an invasion.

The UN Security Council met in emergency session at US request after the Islamic government in Khartoum warned that any nation sending troops to the troubled western region would be taking part in a "hostile act". The warning was contained in a letter addressed to countries which may contribute troops to a UN force for Darfur.

"In the absence of Sudan's consent to the deployment of UN troops, any volunteering to provide peacekeeping troops to Darfur will be considered as a hostile act, a prelude to an invasion of a member country of the UN," it said.

Sudan has repeatedly and forcefully expressed opposition to the transformation of the currently under-resourced African Union force into a fully-fledged UN mission to protect local villagers in the area devastated by Arab militias allied to the government.

More than 200,000 people are estimated to have died as a result of the three-year conflict, and 2.5 million have been left homeless by the scorched earth campaign of ethnic cleansing.

In his latest report, Mr Annan warned the Sudanese government against attempting a "military solution" to the conflict, and urged Khartoum to agree to a UN force.

"Unless security improves, the world is facing the prospect of having to drastically curtail an acutely needed humanitarian operation," Mr Annan said. He described the situation on the ground as being "again on the brink of catastrophe".

"There must be a clear, strong and uniform message from the Security Council and the international community about the consequences of rejecting international assistance for the suffering people of Darfur, and for failing to exercise the responsibility to protect," he said. He was referring to a decision taken by 150 states at a UN summit last year to invoke the "responsibility to protect" to prevent genocide.

"In the meantime, the situation in Darfur is becoming more desperate by the day," Mr Annan said, referring to the violence which has continued despite a peace agreement in May between a rebel group and Khartoum.

The Americans are demanding a strong response to the Sudanese letter. The US delegation to the UN circulated a draft statement on Thursday night, saying that the council "deplores" the Sudan mission's attempt "to intimidate potential troop-contributing countries volunteering forces for a peacekeeping mission in Darfur". It added: "This aggressive gesture by Sudan directed at fellow member states challenges the will of the Security Council," which has authorised up to 22,500 troops and police to bolster the 7,000-strong African force in Darfur, and "is unacceptable behaviour by a member state of the United Nations".

But the US failed to have the statement adopted yesterday, as it needs to be agreed by all 15 members, and some nations - including Britain - felt that it was best to ignore the Sudanese letter, which was unsigned. The council is seeking clarification from Sudan's UN ambassador.