Africa aims to boost military muscle in troubled Darfur

Thursday, the African Union said it needs $723 million for gunships and armored vehicles.

The central focus of the outside world's strategy for dealing with the crisis in Sudan's Darfur province is to get more "boots on the ground," especially troops from other African countries.

To that end, at a high-level conference in Ethiopia Thursday, the 53-member African Union (AU) asked rich nations to provide $723 million in military assistance to bolster its team of monitors in Darfur. It is the only entity with troops there. It reportedly asked for a six helicopter gunships, 116 armored personnel carriers, and other equipment. And it aims by September to expand the force to more than 12,000, from 2,270. By the start of the conference, the US had pledged $50 million, out of a total of $200 million promised by international donors.

But whether more AU or other troops can actually get into place in the vast region with the right logistical support and with rules of engagement that are robust enough, is all still very much in question.

That's why UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan pleaded for more support. "The situation remains unacceptable. Civilians are still at risk and subject to attacks," he said Thursday. "Violence is increasingly targeted at aid workers, hampering their difficult work." Because of this, he told European Union, NATO, and other Western officials, "I am confident that you will provide the support required for the effective expansion of the [AU] mission."

After two years of violence between rebels and the government, Darfur remains a dangerous place. Civilians and aid workers are regularly attacked, according to reports. And most internal refugees are too scared to venture home.

That's where the AU troops come in. So far their mandate has solely been to monitor a shaky cease-fire between rebel and government forces. Civilian protection isn't in their marching orders - unless civilians are being harmed in their immediate vicinity. Also, the troops must travel with government and rebel minders. These strictures, observers say, have made the mission difficult at best.

Now the AU wants to bolster the force. NATO has agreed to help with training and logistics - including airlifting supplies and troops. The UN and European Union also say they'll help.

Indeed, "How to maximize cooperation between these four organizations - how to get the necessary additional troops on the ground quickly enough with equipment, structure, and command organization to be effective, is probably the single most urgent and complex issue the international community faces with the entire Sudan portfolio," said Suliman Baldo of the International Crisis Group in a new report, which says that 10,000 troops are needed.

Others have discussed sending troops, too. NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said Thursday that his organization would send them - if it got the OK from the UN Security Council. But that's not likely because of Chinese opposition.

Canada has offered troops. So has Egypt. But observers see such offers as unlikely to be followed through. In Canada, for example, polls have shown that Canadians are reluctant to commit troops to the region. And Sudan is wary of allowing troops, especially Western ones, into the country, citing national sovereignty.

Just increasing the numbers isn't a solution, argues Richard Cornwell of the Institute for Strategic Studies in Pretoria, South Africa. They need a mandate that allows them to protect civilians and "move around at will." Meanwhile, Darfur's annual "hungry season" is approaching. This year it's exacerbated by unrest, which prevented farmers from planting. Aid agencies are gearing up to try to prevent mass starvation.

There are roughly 1.8 million displaced people in Darfur, a desolate region in western Sudan. Most internal refugees are living in squalid camps. By some estimates, 10,000 are dying per month, mostly from disease or malnutrition. Many of them were chased from their villages by horse-mounted Janjaweed militias that were sometimes backed by government airplanes.

The crisis started in February 2003, when Darfur rebels rose up against the government, citing economic marginalization. The government retaliated by arming the Janjaweed. Much of the overt Janjaweed activity seems to have slowed, now that the civilians have been chased off their farmland.

Wire services were used in this report.

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