Sun, Dec 24, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Sudan to allow UN troops to join in Darfur mission


The Sudanese government has agreed to a UN peacekeeping role in the troubled Darfur region, but in a mission with mostly African Union (AU) troops and an African commander, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said.

Sadeq al-Magli did not specify on Friday how many troops would be accepted but said the UN would mainly provide technical assistance, consultants and military and police experts. He added that the force would be commanded by the AU.

The UN had been pushing for a much larger role in Darfur -- where AU peacekeepers are already operating -- in an effort to put an end to fighting that has claimed more than 200,000 lives and left 2.5 million displaced.

But al-Magli's comments reflected his government's longstanding opposition to the deployment of 20,000 UN troops as proposed by the UN Security Council.

In deference to Khartoum's opposition, the UN scaled back its plans to replace the current AU force of 7,000 troops in Darfur with the much bigger UN operation. Since early last month, the UN has been pushing to reinforce the existing peacekeepers with smaller numbers of UN personnel as well as technical and financial assistance.

Some Sudanese officials in recent weeks had expressed approval for a UN force but others had raised questions, leaving it unclear if Friday's announcement would undergo further changes.

Earlier Friday, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he was encouraged that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir will shortly agree to a hybrid AU-UN force, along with a ceasefire and renewed peace efforts.

"I do fervently hope that we are now at last close to rescuing the people of Darfur from their agony," he said. "But after so many disappointments, I take nothing for granted."

The violence in Darfur began in February 2003 when rebels from African tribes took up arms, complaining of discrimination and oppression by the mostly Arab government. The government is accused of unleashing an Arab militia, the janjaweed, against the ethnic African community in a campaign of murder, rape and arson.

The government denies backing the janjaweed, but UN and AU officials have accused Khartoum of arming the militia and coordinating regular army attacks with it.

Annan said he had received an optimistic report from an envoy sent to Khartoum, encouraging him to "think we may tomorrow receive a green light from President Bashir for a full ceasefire, a renewed effort to bring all parties into [the] political process and deployment of the proposed African Union-United Nations hybrid force."

Al-Magli said his government had not yet seen Annan's statement, but it was true that "Sudan has confirmed to the [UN] envoy that it would sit down for peace talks with the rebel factions any time, anywhere."

He said that the world should pressure rebel factions that did not sign a May peace accord "to come to ceasefire talks and to stop attacking. But for us in the government, yes, we have confirmed our commitment to the ceasefire."

Last week, Annan wrote to al-Bashir saying that the UN would make every effort to find African peacekeepers, but if that proved impossible, it would use "a broader pool of troop contributing countries."

Annan said the first phase of the plan would enhance the AU force by 105 military officers, 33 UN police and 48 international staffers, a copy of the letter released by the UN showed.

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