African leaders yesterday discussed new measures to end bloodshed in Sudan's Darfur region, including increasing a planned African Union (AU) troop deployment and possibly widening its mandate to protect civilians.
The presidents of Sudan, Chad, South Africa, Nigeria and Senegal met in a special session at an AU summit in Ethiopia to discuss the issue. Officials said that if the leaders agreed upon new steps, they would put the proposal to the full conference for approval later.
The African Union's Peace and Security Council is already planning to send 300 soldiers to Darfur to protect 60 AU officials monitoring a shaky ceasefire signed between the Sudanese government and rebels in April.
Under that recommendation, the troops were also to patrol the overcrowded refugee camps and border areas between Sudan and Chad to give confidence to hundreds of thousands of people caught up in widespread looting and burning of villages by Arab Janjaweed militia.
Sudan's Islamist government, under heavy international pressure to stop attacks on black African civilians by militias of Arab heritage, has given its cautious approval.
But under new ideas being considered by the group yesterday, the AU troops might have an explicit mandate to protect the civilians. This raises the prospect of clashes with the militia, which rights groups have accused Khartoum of arming.
Another idea is to simply raise the size of the protection force, without necessarily altering its mandate. On widening the mandate, an AU official said: "That has been raised and they will be discussing it."
But another official sought to play down any prospect of an immediate green light for the deployment of large numbers of AU peacekeepers.
This official suggested the presidents were merely seeking Sudan's acceptance in principle that if the situation worsened, some escalation of AU involvement might become necessary.
"We are just discussing ideas," the official said. "We are still trying to make Sudan happier with the idea of the 300. Part of its role would be to build confidence among the population and with the government."
"We hope Sudan will become comfortable with its performance. If it is, and if there is a need, there would be more possibility of a wider kind of activity."
Described by the UN as the world's worst humanitarian crisis, the situation in Darfur is seen as a major test for the two-year-old AU, which is trying to gain increased Western funding in return for ending wars and despotism and curbing corruption.
The Darfur mission would mark the AU's only joint military deployment since it sent peacekeepers to Burundi in 2003.
Mozambique President Joaquim Chissano said on Wednesday it could take more than a week to get the troops in place in Darfur.
The AU's Peace and Security Council urged Khartoum urgently to "neutralize" the Janjaweed militia but said the bloodshed was not a genocide, a term used by some rights groups.
The ruling was welcomed by Khartoum. "The decision showed quite clearly that there is no genocide. We are happy about it, although we admit that there is a desperate humanitarian need," Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail said.
Under international law, consensus among UN member states on the existence of genocide requires them to prepare immediate steps to intervene and stop it.
After years of tension in Darfur between nomadic Arab tribes and the African farmers they allegedly preyed on, two African groups rebelled last year, accusing Khartoum of arming the Janjaweed militias.
Khartoum has agreed to attend AU-mediated talks on Darfur in Ethiopia on July 15, but the rebels say they will not negotiate unless Sudan first disarms the marauding Arab militias and respects the ceasefire.
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