Outnumbered African force to stay on in Darfur

African Union troops extend their stay for three months as world looks for other solutions.

The people of Darfur won't be totally left to their own devices amid marauding militias and the Sudanese government's bombing campaign, now that the mandate of the African Union force – originally set to expire next week – has been extended through the end of the year.

But Sudan's acceptance of the three-month extension may turn out to be just a fig leaf as the government continues its fight against rebels, and pro-government militias pursue deadly harrassment of civilian populations in the vast region, US officials and other experts say. If the Sudanese government accepted an extension of the AU mandate, they add, it is because the undermanned and outgunned African force has been largely ineffective at curtailing the violence – violence the government has stoked over past weeks.

The goal of the international community continues to be deployment of a larger and better-equipped United Nations force to Darfur. But with the government of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir balking, getting the already-approved UN force on the ground will take even more intense international pressure, analysts say – including from China, which has extensive commercial ties to the energy-producing country.

"Extension of the African Union force is a positive development, because without that we faced the prospect of hundreds of thousands of people with absolutely no defense," says Marie Clarke Brill, acting co-executive director of Africa Action in Washington. "But that can't let the international community off the hook: Either they move ahead quickly to get the UN force deployed, or countries find another way to get peacekeeping forces on the ground."

This week President Bush signaled Darfur as a top priority of his administration, naming former USAID administrator Andrew Natsios as his special envoy on the conflict, and hinting at support for international intervention even without the government of Sudan's support.

Still, international pressure has focused on China, which has interests in Sudan's energy sector and is seen by some as holding a key to President Bashir's acquiescence to a UN peacekeeping force. But some analysts, noting that China has abstained in Security Council votes on Sudan but not vetoed action, say Beijing may have gone as far as it will on pressuring Sudan. They say the onus remains on the US and the Europeans to press for a peacekeeping force.

"It's really time for the US and the European countries to move beyond simply what they've been saying and start putting some measures in place," says Sally Chin, a Horn of Africa analyst with the International Crisis Group's Nairobi office. "Ideally this action would be UN-wide, but if it's not going to be, then there has to be some kind of coalition for the willing."

Analysts say the African Union force of about 7,000 soldiers has been no match either for the vast terrain of Darfur, a region the size of Texas, or for the Sudanese government's forces – which between governnment troops and pro-government militiamen are thought to number about 22,000. The approved UN peacekeeping force would number 22,500.

One danger on the horizon is that the international community will take the African Union's mandate extension as breathing space, but Ms. Brill says deployment of a UN force would have to be decided in the next "days or weeks" if a security vacuum in Darfur is to be averted. "Deploying a large UN force takes several months, so this decision is something that has to happen quickly if we aren't going to be right back at the same situation at the end of the year," she says.

She agrees that if the UN ends up unable to enforce its peacekeeping resolution, then interested countries should act on their own.

Among the ideas on that track: tough financial sanctions against the government of Sudan, and enforcement – perhaps by NATO countries – of a no-fly zone over Darfur to stop Khartoum's aerial campaign against what it says are rebel positions.

Experts estimate that at least 200,000 people have died in Darfur, while more than 2 million have been left homeless or forced to flee to neighboring countries. The Bush administration labeled the Darfur conflict a "genocide" two years ago.

As important as deploying a peacekeeping force may be, some experts like Ms. Chin say it shouldn't be allowed to overshadow the faltering peace agreement. "With all the attention on the UN efforts, the peace process has been pretty much abandoned," she says.

Bush's naming of a special envoy could keep the attention on the peace process, experts say. "It's a very positive step to have someone representing the president who is full time on this," says Chin, "and can take up things beyond the necessary temporary measures to long-term solutions."

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