UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is heading to Darfur this week to see for himself the devastation caused by four years of ethnic cleansing by Sudanese government forces and allied Arab militia which has left an estimated 200,000 people dead and two million homeless. He will be pressing for the early deployment of a UN peacekeeping force, more relief aid for the stricken province and a political solution to the conflict.
But is his visit likely to make any difference?
Mr Ban is making his first trip to Sudan since taking over as UN chief last January at a critical juncture. Following the rejoicing at the end of July when the UN Security Council ordered a 26,000-strong peacekeeping force to Darfur, grim reality has kicked in. So he could face tough talks in Khartoum with the Islamist government who resisted the deployment of UN peacekeepers tooth and nail for months. Mr Ban said last week when announcing that he is going to Sudan, Chad and Libya in the next few days that he wants to lock down the "full support" of the Sudanese government when he meets President Omar al-Bashir. The rebels and the government forces have probably realised that they have a window of opportunity right now to consolidate their positions on the ground in the knowledge that it is going to take the UN months to assemble one of the largest peacekeeping missions in the world.
Why will it take so long?
Because nothing as complex as this mission has ever been attempted before. It is a "hybrid" force under the joint command of the African Union and the UN. It is also supposed to be dominated by African troops. But possible troop providers are already occupied with peacekeeping missions in other parts of Africa, including Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and 7,000 African troops are already in Darfur making up an under-equipped African observer force.
The mission also has a civilian component including as many as 3,772 international police officers. While troops can be deployed at fairly short notice, it is much trickier taking policemen off the beat. Often retired policemen are solicited. Although Western countries are not expected to send soldiers to Darfur, and are talking about providing logistical and technical assistance to the mission, the UN is appealing to "the countries that have been talking about Darfur" – ie, the US and UK – to contribute police. And Mr Ban said at the end of last week that the new force still lacked aviation, transport and logistic units.
What's happening on the ground?
The situation became extremely tense again last week when the Darfur rebels accused the government of bombing South Darfur, sending 20,000 people fleeing into the bush.
Mr Ban has expressed alarm about the escalation of violence which has left hundreds dead in the last few weeks, not only in Darfur but in southern Sudan as well.
The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, issued a joint appeal for a ceasefire last Friday. Everybody involved in securing a peaceful outcome is worried that the significant achievement that secured stability in southern Sudan after 21 years of civil war could be jeopardised by the renewed violence in Darfur.
What about a political solution for Darfur?
That's really the key. Mr Ban says peace talks are "well on track" and that the Sudanese government is ready to come to the negotiating table. But that sounds over-optimistic because the fractured rebel movements are still divided.
The main rebel leader, Abdel Wahed Al-Nur, wants the peacekeepers to be deployed to stop the rapes and slaughter of his people, before he agrees to talks. Mr Nur, who is now based in Paris, has just boycotted a meeting of opposition leaders from Darfur in Tanzania at which they coordinated their negotiating positions for the future talks with the Sudanese government.
Nevertheless, Mr Ban says he hopes to keep up the momentum by issuing invitations to a full-fledged peace conference "by the end of the summer".