UN force takes over in Darfur

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The Independent Online

A joint African-United Nations force took over peacekeeping duties in war-torn Darfur on yesterday, a long awaited step that is intended to be the strongest effort yet to solve the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

But many are already warning that its prospects are grim, and that if it fails, the four-and-a-half-year conflict, which has already killed 200,000 people and driven some 2.5 million from their homes, will only worsen.

The force at 9,000 soldiers and policemen is only a little larger than the beleaguered and ineffectual African Union peacekeeping mission it replaces. Even in a best case scenario, it will take months to build up to its planned strength of 26,000.

Western nations have not come through with equipment like military helicopters and vehicles the UN says are vital for the new force to reach hotspots quickly and protect civilians. The Sudanese government, meanwhile, has thrown up numerous obstacles to the deployment.

Monday's handover ceremony at the new mission's still unfinished headquarters outside El Fasher, capital of North Darfur state, was low key.

The AU force's military commander, Gen. Martin Agwai, took off his green African Union beret and donned one with the blue UN colors, becoming the commander of the new force, known as UNAMID. The troops on hand for the ceremony most of them from the previous AU force did the same.

"We are determined to deploy the most robust force possible," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement to the ceremony read by UNAMID's top chief Rodolphe Adada. "If we are to have a real impact on the situation on the ground within the first half of 2008, these deployments must happen far more swiftly than they have done so far."

Ban chided nations for not pledging aircraft and ground transport. He also said he expects the Sudanese government to "work constructively with the UN and AU."

The Darfur conflict has pitted ethnic African rebels against the military of the Arab-dominated Khartoum government. Arab militias allied to the government, known as janjaweed, are accused of a campaign of atrocities against ethnic African civilians, attacking villages and raping women.

The fighting has only grown more complicated over the past year, with rebel groups splintering. Since a deadly rebel attack on an AU base in November, the under-equipped AU troops have largely stayed in their camps, all but giving up on most basic peacekeeping missions, such as protecting women from being raped by janjaweed when they trek out to collect firewood.

Attacks on international aid workers increased 150 percent over 2007, and violence has made large areas inaccessible to humanitarian relief, according to the UN

The UN and Western nations have hoped that deploying a strongly equipped UNAMID force could finally put some firepower behind attempts to protect civilians and prevent violence.

But even before Monday's deployment, UN peacekeeping chief Jean-Marie Guehenno warned that the force could be a failure.

"Do we move ahead with the deployment of a force that will not make a difference, that will not have the capability to defend itself and that carries the risk of humiliation?" Guehenno asked the Security Council in late November.

As it stands, UNAMID forces consist of the around 7,000 troops who made up the African Union mission, augmented by 800 UN-affiliated personnel and 1,200 policemen.

African Union spokesman Noureddine Mezni said additional troops from Egypt, Ethiopia and other countries were expected to arrive by mid-January, but he could not say how many.

Building UNAMID up to its full strength of 26,000 "will take some months," he said.

Thomas Cargill, an Africa expert at London's Chatham House foreign affairs think-tank, said UNAMID could make a difference if it can deploy fully and if it has the right support.

"But those are two big ifs," he said "The disconnect between what the permanent members of the Security Council say they want to happen in Darfur and what is actually happening is very wide."

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir long resisted Western demands that he accept a UN force, vowing that he would lead a "jihad" against any UN peacekeeper who sets foot in Darfur. But in June he accepted a compromise deal for the deployment of a "hybrid mission" of mainly African troops.

Since then, Khartoum has been gnawing at the force as best it can.

It has refused to allow night flights except for medical evacuation or large UN cargo planes. It has also barred fully operational battalions of peacekeepers from Thailand or Scandinavia from deploying in January as planned.

It has also attempted to require the force to give it advance notice of all movements and to ensure that its military can scramble UN radio communications when it is conducting operations.

Darfur expert and rights activist Eric Reeves said the main problem was the lack of Western will to build an effective force.

"The people of Darfur simply don't matter enough: They're poor, they're black, they're Muslim, and they don't sit on any natural resource," he said. "You can't get any lower than that on the geopolitical pecking order."