New Darfur force 'carries little hope for change'

The African Union today handed over its Darfur peacekeeping mission to an understaffed joint UN force many believe will prove even worse at stemming the violence in Sudan’s war-torn western region.

The African Union today handed over its Darfur peacekeeping mission to an understaffed joint UN force many believe will prove even worse at stemming the violence in Sudan’s war-torn western region.

Only 9,000 of the planned 26,000 peacekeepers are in place and experts believe it will have little immediate effect on improving security in the area where 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million been driven from their homes in four years of violence.

Ethnic African rebels have been battling troops of the Arab-dominated Khartoum government and the Arab militias known as janjaweed, which are accused of committing widespread atrocities against civilians.

The transfer ceremony held at the new mission’s headquarters outside the North Darfur capital of El Fasher capped months of international pressure on Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to admit the force.

During the ceremony, the AU force’s commander, General Martin Agwai took off his green African Union beret and donned one with the blue UN colours, becoming the commander of the new force, known as UNAMID.

The bulk of the forces on the ground are the around 7,000 troops who made up the African Union force, augmented by 800 UN-affiliated personnel and 1,200 policemen .

The Sudanese president has thrown up bureaucratic obstructions to the full deployment, including blocking Swedish and Thai troops from deploying. Western countries have been slow to provide military helicopters, vital to making the force effective.

An African Union spokesman said additional troops from Egypt, Ethiopia and other countries were expected to arrive by mid-January, but he could not say how many. Building UNAMID up to its full strength of 26,000 “will take some months,” he said.

But he said the force urgently needed military helicopters better ground transportation and other equipment to be effective.

“In an area like Darfur, the size of France, we cannot do the job properly without these things. We appeal to the international community and all those able to provide us with these things to do so as soon as possible,” he said.

UN officials have said the force at full strength with 20,000 troops and 6,000 policemen, backed by attack helicopters, would be robust and fast enough to stop attacks on refugees, civilians and aid workers.

That would be a sharp contrast to the African Union force, which has only 7,000 troops and is too understaffed and under-equipped to stop violence in the region.

Those AU troops have already given up on patrolling refugee camps or conducting most basic peacekeeping missions, such as protecting women from being raped by janjaweed when they trek out to collect firewood. Since they came under direct attack by rebels in September, most AU peacekeepers now stick to their bases.

African nations have promised enough troops to fill out the 26,000-member force. But UN officials say many of these forces are unequipped for a peacekeeping operation, and so far there is no clear timetable for their deployment. Also, no nation has offered the 24 helicopters the UN needs in Darfur.

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