Urgent calls for more troops to Darfur

Amid new escalation in fighting in the troubled Darfur region of Sudan, with rebels shooting down a government helicopter Tuesday, there's fresh pressure on the international community to step in to help stop the three-year-old conflict.

It comes as consensus is hardening in Western capitals and at the United Nations that the 7,000 African troops now in Darfur, as part of a force supplied by the African Union, are inadequate. Because of limited training, equipment, and marching orders, the AU troops have been unable to contain the fighting, provide safety for civilians, or adequately protect humanitarian aid groups operating in the desert region, which is the size of Texas.

The AU mission "is costing a fortune and nothing's happening" except that the mission "is going broke and will have no more supplies within a month or so," says Richard Cornwell of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa. That means the international community, which is under significant political pressure to help in Darfur "has to decide where it's going to put its money - and how," he says.

This week, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan met with President Bush to push for US support on Darfur. Mr. Bush, who is under pressure from Christian conservatives to act, remained noncommittal. "We did agree that we need a much more effective force on the ground" to replace AU troops, Mr. Annan said after the meeting, although he didn't mention specifics.

A Feb. 3 UN Security Council resolution authorized sending UN troops to replace the AU force - although experts say it could be six to nine months, at the earliest, before such blue-helmeted soldiers arrive.

Meanwhile, 30,000 people have been displaced from their homes in just the last month, the UN says. And some 2 million people - half of Darfur's population - are living in displaced-person camps where they are under threat of attack. Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group urged Bush to push for up to 20,000 NATO troops to be sent.

Some US Democrats, like Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, have also been calling for NATO to send troops. But NATO has so far proved reluctant to seriously entertain the idea.

"The focus is more about extending our support role in the transition from an AU to a blue-helmet force," a European diplomat, who requested anonymity, told Reuters Wednesday. NATO planes have transported about 4,000 AU troops into Darfur and have trained AU officers. The US is also very reluctant to commit troops.

Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, visiting Darfur peace talks in Nigeria, had harsh words Tuesday for the government and rebel sides. "Progress in the talks has been far too slow," he said, scolding both sides for ignoring a long- tattered cease-fire. "The international community is not going to allow those individuals who are responsible for gross human rights violations or blocking the peace process to escape the consequences of their actions," Mr. Straw warned. The UN Security Council is considering sanctions against individual rebels and members of the Khartoum government.

The war broke out in 2003, with Darfur rebels crusading against what they see as economic and political marginalization by the central government in Khartoum. The government responded by arming and supporting so-called janjaweed militias, who've since been targeting civilians in Darfur.

In simple terms, the conflict, which is occurring amid the spreading Sahara Desert, is between Arab janjaweed, who have links to the area's traditional cattle-herders, and black African farmers - although the reality is more nuanced.

The International Criminal Court is investigating whether war crimes have been perpetrated. The US says genocide has occurred in the region.

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