African Union Darfur Forces Look to UN for Help

African For three years, the small, underfunded African Union (AU) protection force has been seen as the main hope for peace in the Darfur region of Sudan. But hampered by a weak mandate and interference from the Sudanese government and Darfur rebels, there are growing calls to replace the AU mission with a much larger UN peacekeeping force — and some AU soldiers are the biggest supporters of a UN takeover.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand. In a few minutes, a new artificial surface takes the mud and maybe some of the danger out of horse racing. First though, in Sudan, the government said yesterday that any United Nations peacekeeping troops coming to Darfur could be treated as invaders.

A small, underfunded African Union force has been trying to keep the peace in Darfur for several years. They can't do a lot, and many of them are begging for the U.N. to come in.

From Sudan, David McGuffin reports.

DAVID MCGUFFIN: An African Union patrol of 50 Rwandan soldiers drives across the dry Darfuri landscape. Sitting in open backs of pick-up trucks, they have scarves pulled up over their faces against the clouds of dust whipping around them. They're on their way to three refugee camps near al-Fashir in North Darfur. The camps hold over 100,000 refugees. The soldiers' brief visit will be the only protection the camps will get for the day.

In the camps, the troops fan out. They lack a translator to interact with the people. This is the reality of the underfunded African Union peace mission here. Back at the base, you can hear the soldiers' frustration as they discuss their job. Gambian Sergeant Lemean Torre(ph) has been with the mission for 11 months.

Sergeant LEMEAN TORRE (African Union Peacekeeper): I know it's not easy for peacekeeping. You can see at (unintelligible) easy. So (unintelligible) not easy. So (unintelligible) many units.

MCGUFFIN: They were initially credited with stemming the slaughter in Darfur, but now, with rebel groups dividing a failed peace accord and a huge new government offensive, the A.U. troops just aren't up to the task in much of this vast territory.

In total, the African Union has just 7,000 soldiers and police across an area the size of France. The soldiers are badly outnumbered and outgunned. Funding problems mean they often go weeks without pay. The A.U. troops are mostly equipped with AK-47 assault rifles. It's not enough, says South African Corporal Abraham Motou(ph).

Corporal ABRAHAM MOTOU (African Union Peacekeeper) We are not getting that much of a support as we are expecting, especially when coming to our tasks.

MCGUFFIN: Most of the soldiers we talked to say the American-led plan to introduce a much larger U.N. peacekeeping force into Darfur - 20,000 strong - is the only answer.

Again, South African Corporal Abraham Motou.

Cpl. MOTOU: The U.N., when it does its thing, it does it in a very professional way, rather than A.U. (unintelligible) undermining it. But A.U. is too reluctant to (unintelligible) Sudanese government.

MCGUFFIN: The Sudanese government is beyond reluctant to allow in U.N. peacekeepers. President Omar al-Bashir has turned down the proposal, claiming it would be an assault on Sudan's sovereignty.

President OMAR AL-BASHIR (Sudan): And we will miss an opportunity.

MCGUFFIN: But in Khartoum, Ambassador Baba Gana Kingibe, who recently stepped down after four years as the African Union special representative to Sudan, says something has to be done.

Mr. BABA GANA KINGIBE (A.U. Ambassador): Every one of the rebel groups in Darfur are better armed and logistically better supported than the African Union troops. There isn't much the troops can do in the face of hordes of rebel armies, let alone the Sudanese government troops.

MCGUFFIN: The idea of a U.N. peacekeeping force in Darfur is also supported by opposition leader Hassan al-Turabi, a leading Sudanese Islamist. Prime minister when Osama bin Laden was given refuge in Sudan in the mid-1990s, he's not someone who traditionally works with the international community. Yet even he thinks it's time for the U.N. to come in.

Mr. HASSAN AL-TURABI (Opposition Leader): I think this is a country - a member of the United Nations - that refuses completely to give any due respect to the United Nations resolutions. They're not hurting us. They are not coming to take over government. It's in Darfur, this force (unintelligible) Darfur, and (unintelligible) Darfur.

(Soundbite of military drill)

MCGUFFIN: Watching African Union troops drill with precision on their dusty parade ground in al-Fashir, you'd never know how impossible their mission really is. The African Union mandate now runs until the new year.

It's hoped by many Western nations that by then a deal will have been brokered to allow in a more robust U.N. force. Until that happens, these African Union soldiers are left to watch and do what little they can as the conflict continues to rage all around them.

For NPR News, I'm David McGuffin, al-Fashir, Darfur.

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