U.N. Weighs Force to Protect Darfur Aid Efforts

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The United Nations Security Council meets Tuesday to discuss how to respond to the crisis in Sudan's embattled Darfur region and the spillover of violence to neighboring states.

The meeting came as the International Criminal Court charged a former state minister close to Sudan's president and a janjaweed militia leader with more than 50 war crimes and crimes against humanity related to treatment of people in Darfur.

(The men accused Tuesday by ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo are Ahmed Muhammed Harun and Ali Mohammed Ali Abd-al-Raman, the Associated Press reported. The former was once head of the government's "Darfur Security Desk" and has been a member of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir's inner circle. The latter has reportedly played a key role in the militias blamed for much of Darfur's bloodshed.)

On the Security Council's agenda Tuesday is a proposal to send U.N. peacekeepers to Chad and the Central African Republic, which neighobr the Darfur region.

Aid workers say the help is already overdue. There are 220,000 refugees from Darfur living in camps in Chad, and more than 110,000 internally displaced people. Nikki Bennett of Oxfam, an international development and relief organization, described attacks in Chad reminiscent of those in Darfur — with villages destroyed and ordinary people suffering the most.

"Just a couple of days ago, I was in a camp called Gourounkoun, and I was speaking to a grandmother who had fled with several of her children and grandchildren," Bennett said. "(She) told me that 15 members of her immediate family where killed and she still feels unsafe."

She says the woman was too afraid to send her remaining family members out to gather water and firewood.

"In this camp, there isn't a water source at the moment. You have to walk for several miles — sometimes up to six hours to gather water," Bennett said. "And the aid agencies like Oxfam are trying to respond to that, but the needs are just so great — and people are still arriving. And we are struggling to provide security because that is not our job."

Bennett is hoping the U.N. will take on the job, not only in Chad but also in Central African Republic — both of which border Sudan's Darfur region. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has suggested about 500 peacekeepers for the Central African Republic and up to 11,000 for Chad.

U.N. officials privately acknowledge this is a big number that may be hard to fill. That's a thought echoed by Shannon Meehan, the director of government relations and advocacy for the International Rescue Committee.

"I was like, 'Wow, that's pretty bold,'" Meehan said. "Logistically, it would take the peacekeeping office of the United Nations a very long time to get to that number."

She also says that peacekeeping is not the panacea — certainly not in the Central African Republic, where the U.N. has been focusing mainly in areas along the border with Sudan.

"It's not just northeastern Central African Republic. Northwestern Central African Republic is in conflict, and has been stirring for a couple of years," she said. "Each country — Chad, Sudan and CAR — have their own internal problems that need to be resolved internally, diplomatically."

All that takes time — and aid workers say there is an urgent need now to make sure the violence in Chad and the Central African Republic doesn't get worse.

"Let's be preemptive here and contain it now before it does get out of hand," said David Kaatrud of the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

He said the situation in Darfur is as dire as ever, with attacks continuing on civilians and aid workers also targeted by roving militias and bandits.

"We now have attacks on compounds themselves — carjacking and the like — for teams that are trying to move around and do assessments and monitoring," he said. "And we have to do that because it's an almost swirling affair, where some areas are quite difficult for a while, and then it moves to another area. So it shifts continuously. So we continue to be mobile to understand what's going on."

The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution last year authorizing U.N. peacekeepers for Darfur, but Sudan's government rejected that. Aid workers are hoping the U.N. will have an easier time getting the governments of the Central African Republic and Chad to open the door for better security.

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