U.N. Debates Future of Darfur Force

The debate over the situation in Darfur is heating up this week at the United Nations. Sudan's president is resisting plans for a stronger U.N. presence in the country.

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The only peacekeepers in Darfur are staying for now. A deal has been reached on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. It keeps the African Union peacekeeping force in the Darfur region until the end of this year. That's the short-term solution.

For the long-term, Sudan has been under pressure to allow the United Nations to take over peacekeeping duties from the African Union force. The idea is to better protect millions of people forced from their homes and at risk in displacement camps.

Sudan so far has not budged, so the African Union agreed yesterday to this short-term solution as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Even African Union officials have long recognized that their force in Darfur is too small and ill equipped to deal with the rising violence that's forcing aid workers to scale back and putting millions of people at risk.

The current head of the African Union's Peace and Security Council, Burkina Faso's president Blaise Campaore, said for now the AU will stay on with some extra help. He spoke through an interpreter.

Mr. BLAISE CAMPAORE (President, Burkina Faso; African Union Peace and Security Council): (Through translator) Yes, they are going to be funding and financing support from African countries, logistical and material support from the United Nations, and the commitment from the Arab Leagues of States to finance the operation of the troops until December.

KELEMEN: The U.N. plan for now is to offer what one official called a light package. No boots on the ground, but some military advisors and more equipment. Officials here say they are pressing ahead with plans to put in a more robust U.N. force, but don't expect anyone to commit troops until Sudan agrees. And at a news conference this week, Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, speaking through an interpreter, was clear about where he stands on this.

President OMAR AL-BASHIR (President of Sudan): (Through translator) We categorically and totally reject the transformation of the African forces in Darfur to a U.N. force.

KELEMEN: Aside from blocking the U.N., Bashir also accused human rights groups of exaggerating the crisis in Darfur. And he lambasted the rallies that have been taking place around the world, painting them as some sort of Zionist plot against Sudan.

President AL-BASHIR: (Through translator) Who organized these rallies? Those who organized these rallies invariably are Zionist Jewish organizations.

KELEMEN: The conflict in Darfur has been mainly Muslim on Muslim violence, with the government using Arab tribal militias in a brutal counterinsurgency campaign against African farmers.

Two years ago, President Bush labeled it genocide, a word he repeated this week on the floor of the General Assembly as he addressed the people of Darfur.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: If the Sudanese government does not approve this peacekeeping force quickly, the United Nations must act. Your lives and the credibility of the United Nations is at stake.

KELEMEN: The Sudanese delegation laughed dismissively as the president spoke. And while many world leaders issued dire warnings about Darfur, they're finding they face few options short of fighting their way in.

A top British official, David Triesman, told reporters here this week that the idea now is to have the African Union, as he put it, hold the ring as diplomats try to get a credible force on the ground. Britain is offering Sudan some incentives to encourage it to think about its future.

Lord DAVID TRIESMAN (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Britain): How could Sudan increase its prosperity and the ability of all of its people to get a living in a country which is impoverished, which has a desert that is growing, where the environment is getting harsher and where all of those questions have got to be resolved; otherwise, there will always be competing peoples in Sudan for scarce resources.

KELEMEN: Triesman says Darfur is at a tipping point.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the United Nations.

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