Sudan govt demands may delay Darfur troops decision

By Opheera McDoom

KHARTOUM – Sudanese demands could delay an African Union decision to ask the United Nations to take over peacekeeping in Darfur, the European Union said on Thursday.

Washington urged foreign ministers from the member nations of the African Union to go

ahead with an expected decision on Friday and ask the United Nations to take control of the 7,000-strong AU mission in Sudan’s troubled western region.

But EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana told Reuters on Thursday he could not guarantee the AU would come to an agreement on Friday, despite two days of inconclusive efforts to persuade Sudanese Vice-President Ali Osman Mohamed Taha.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick said in Paris the AU must act swiftly if it wanted to strengthen monitoring of a shaky ceasefire to a conflict which has killed tens of thousands and left some two million people homeless.

“We don’t have time to waste. There are heart-breaking conditions in Darfur and they risk worsening.” Zoellick said.

The United States has condemned the violence in Darfur as genocide. It accuses Sudan’s government of fighting mostly non-Arab rebel movements by arming Arab militias, known as the Janjaweed, who have terrorised villagers across the region with a campaign of rape, murder, crop and home destruction.

Khartoum denies genocide and denies links to the Janjaweed.

Zoellick said a U.N. force could build on the AU mission and include more African and Asian troops.

Taha said Khartoum could consider an unspecified U.N. role if talks with rebels, being held in the Nigerian capital Abuja, yielded a deal to resolve the conflict.

“If there is a political settlement then by way of providing guarantees to make the settlement hold, then we can look into the role of the U.N., Taha said on Wednesday in Brussels.

But the EU’s Solana said that could be too late.

The talks, in their seventh round, have been blighted by rebel infighting. AU mediators on Thursday expressed “deep dismay” at the latest setback, a new leadership crisis in one of the factions of rebel group the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA).

The AU said it would continue to recognise Abdel Wahed Mohamed el-Nur as leader of one of the SLA factions despite a statement by 19 senior SLA members that they renounced him.

Esam al-Haj, spokesman for the SLA, the main rebel group, told Reuters the priority in Darfur should be to protect civilians so Khartoum had no reason not to accept a U.N. force.

“Our people are dying every day as the government rejects the transformation of the force into a U.N. one,” he said.

He said the government had moved 2,000 troops to the east of Darfur and was building up arms and troops in the north.

“This indicates the government is preparing itself for a new offensive,” he said.

Sudanese Foreign Minister Lam Akol said: “The AU does not have the power to invite the U.N. to Sudan. If they want to come, the U.N. has to discuss that with the government of Sudan, not through a third party.”

Akol said Sudan was against a U.N. force because it was a major demand of Darfur rebel groups.

“Accepting the U.N. forces means scuttling the peace process because it makes the position of the other side (the rebels) more intransigent,” he said.

Opposition politicians in Sudan said the government was against a U.N. mission because the military fear U.N. forces might in future be asked to arrest those accused of war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

“They are afraid that if the court has come to a point to arrest people then the UN contingent will do that,” said Bashir Adam Rahma, Popular Congress Party political affairs chief.

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Thursday it was cutting its 2006 budget for work in Darfur because security constraints had severely limited its operations there. — Reuter