UN `fact-finding' mission starts in troubled Darfur


Fri, Aug 27, 2004 - Page 6

The UN began a three-day fact-finding mission in troubled Darfur yesterday to establish whether the Sudanese government has fulfilled its pledges to improve security and rein in Arab militia accused of months of atrocities.

Three UN teams, accompanied by Sudanese government officials, will fan out across the western region, before presenting their assessment to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Aug. 31.

The UN Security Council has threatened Khartoum with penalties if it doesn't make sufficient progress in disarming Arab militiamen, known as janjaweed, accused of killing and maiming black African farmers and burning villages across Darfur.

"We are coming very close to the moment of assessment. The clock is ticking," said UN special representative Jan Pronk at a news conference in the Sudanese capital Wednesday.

"The responsibility is for the authorities in Khartoum not only to make promises but to implement the promises, and to show that it does make sense to continue on this road. If not, the international community has to consider what is necessary," he said.

The UN says Darfur has become the scene of the world's worst humanitarian crisis since African rebels rose against the government in February last year, claiming discrimination in the distribution of scarce resources.

International rights groups have accused the government of arming the janjaweed to crush the revolt -- an accusation it denies, although last week the UN said Khartoum acknowledged it has "control" over some fighters.

On Aug. 10, the Sudanese government and the UN signed an action plan to create havens in Darfur within 30 days so civilians can search for food and water and farm without fear of attack.

The plan requires the cessation of all military operations by government forces, militias, and rebel groups in areas around camps where thousands of displaced people have taken refuge, as well as near towns and villages that still have large populations.

"The visits aim to check the implementation of these commitments," Radhia Achouri, spokesperson for the UN Mission in Sudan, told reporters.

"The most crucial part of this is to demonstrate an irreversible, substantial and sustainable improvement of security in the areas selected by the government of Sudan," she said.

She said the Security Council was scheduled to meet to consider Pronk's report on Sept. 2.

Pronk, accompanied by Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail, will head the team in Geneina, West Darfur. UN deputy humanitarian coordinator Erick De Mul will visit Al-Fasher, the provincial capital of North Darfur, while deputy special representative Manuel Aranda Da Silva will visit the south.

All three plan to check on conditions and humanitarian access to some of the 147 camps for displaced people. The UN says about 1.4 million people have been driven from their homes and are now in some 147 camps throughout Darfur's three states, while another 180,000 Darfur refugees have fled into neighboring Chad.

At African Union-brokered peace talks in Abuja, Nigeria, a government delegate on Wednesday modified Sudan's previous rejection of an international peacekeeping force for Darfur. He said the government had no objections to an African Union force.