Troops die on ground in Darfur as peacekeeping force suffers helicopter shortage

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Helicopters desperately needed by peacekeepers in Darfur are flying in air shows and sitting in hangars across Europe, according to a new report.

A year after the deployment of a peacekeeping mission for Darfur was authorised by the UN Security Council, the force is still without the 18 transport helicopters it needs to carry its troops across a region twice the size of the UK.

The report, backed by a group of elder statesmen including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former US president Jimmy Carter, as well as more than 30 aid agencies, think- tanks and human rights organisations, indicates that Nato states could provide 104 helicopters – almost six times the number needed.

While the US and Britain are using their helicopters in Iraq and Afghanistan, others are lying idle in Italy, Spain, Romania, the Czech Republic and Ukraine. "Many are gathering dust in hangars or flying in air shows," Archbishop Tutu and Mr Carter wrote in the foreword to the report.

Senior officials in the Unamid peacekeeping force believe helicopters would have helped them deal more rapidly with attacks on villages in west Darfur in February. They would also have enabled the force to provide back-up when peacekeepers were ambushed by around 200 militiamen in North Darfur earlier this month. Seven peacekeepers were killed.

The missing helicopters are symptomatic of the lack of support Unamid's senior commanders feel they are receiving. They feel that Western governments have been quick to criticise Unamid without providing it with the resources it needs.

So far, just 9,500 of the proposed 26,000 military personnel have been deployed. Most are African Union soldiers who simply replaced their AU helmets with UN ones. Some have been forced to put blue plastic bags on their heads. Most of the equipment Unamid uses has also been inherited from the AU force.

"It is critical for us to have more support," said Nourredine Mezni, Unamid's spokesman.

Yet even if fully staffed and fully resourced, some commentators doubt if Unamid will be able to protect Darfur's civilians. "Unamid has been given a task that would stretch a force 10 times as big and 10 times as well-equipped," said Alex De Waal, a Sudan expert at the New York-based Social Science Research Council.

The UN Security Council will meet later today to discuss whether to renew Unamid's mandate, which expires at midnight. Its decision has been complicated by the fallout from the decision of the International Criminal Court's prosecutor to accuse Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir of genocide.