Chinese peacekeepers on show as world protests over Darfur

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The Independent Online

In a bid to change public perception that it is in some way supporting genocide in the Sudanese province of Darfur, China has put a group of People's Liberation Army engineers on show ahead of their deployment in Darfur on a UN peacekeeping mission.

China's concerted effort to improve its image came as protests were held in 30 countries across the globe to highlight the crisis in Darfur, where 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million have been driven from their homes since ethnic tensions erupted into revolt in 2003 in the western Sudanese province. The government in Khartoum is accused of unleashing deadly militias known as the Janjaweed, which are blamed for the bulk of the atrocities.

Under the slogan "Don't Look Away", organisers are demanding action from world leaders when they meet at the UN General Assembly next week.

Peace talks are planned to be held in Libya, and the Sudanese government has promised a ceasefire, once negotiations are under way.

Western governments and human rights protesters believe China, which is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has a pivotal role in resolving the Darfur crisis as it buys two-thirds of Sudan's oil and sells it weapons and military aircraft.

Beijing has been accused of indirectly supporting genocide there by ignoring the conflict.

Gordon Brown has pledged technical support for peacekeepers due to go to the Darfur region, but warned Khartoum of possible further sanctions if it failed to make "necessary changes".

Critics have attempted to shame China into acting by linking the Darfur crisis to next year's Olympic Games in the Chinese capital. Beijing was particularly stung by an open letter from the actress Mia Farrow, who said Steven Spielberg, who is co-directing the Olympic opening ceremonies with the top Chinese director Zhang Yimou, risked earning comparisons with the Nazi film-maker Leni Riefenstahl. Mia Farrow and Cate Blanchett were among the celebrities who released a letter focusing on the murder and rape of Darfur's women.

China has changed its tone in recent months and said it was willing to play a more constructive role in Darfur by offering to provide more aid to victims.

Beijing has been seen as the main opponent on the Security Council to Western moves for sanctions, warning that they could be counter-productive.

China's 315 military engineers and a medical unit will be deployed to a UN force to implement initial stages of the "Annan" peace plan, which involves bolstering African Union peacekeepers already in Darfur. It includes three engineer platoons, one well- digging platoon, and one field hospital, Dai Shao'an, vice-director of the Defence Ministry's office of peacekeeping affairs, told the Xinhua news agency.

The units would be deployed to build roads and bridges and dig wells in advance of the larger 26,000-strong African Union-UN peacekeeping force for Darfur approved by the Security Council in July.

China regularly bemoans the fact that it gets scant attention for its international peacekeeping work. Altogether, China has sent close to 8,100 military personnel on 17 UN peacekeeping missions since 1990.