AU-UN force could be in Darfur by October, says diplomat

UN peacekeeping chief: Sudan's acceptance of the joint force is "a significant step forward."

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(photo credit: )
A joint African Union-United Nations peacekeeping force could be in conflict-torn Darfur by October, depending on how quickly the two organizations are able to get troops and funds, a Sudanese diplomat said. Sudan also was willing to accept peacekeepers from anywhere in the world, said Akuei Bona Malwal, the deputy head of Sudan's diplomatic mission in Ethiopia, where the African Union is based. He said Wednesday his country was swayed to accept the joint peacekeeping force by provisions that its mission would not be open-ended and for Sudan to maintain control of its border. The African Union announced Tuesday that Sudan had agreed to allow up to 19,000 peacekeepers in Darfur, but that was met with skepticism in some quarters, given Khartoum's repeated backtracking on the proposal first made in November and the lack of detail about how officials managed to satisfy Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who has demanded in the past that the entire force come from Africa and be commanded by the AU, not the UN. The UN peacekeeping chief on Wednesday called Sudan's acceptance of the joint force "a significant step forward" though he cautioned that "it's not the end of the road." "We needed that step. We have that step now and we believe we can build on it," Undersecretary-General John-Marie Guehenno told reporters after briefing the UN Security Council in New York. Malwal, speaking to The Associated Press by phone from the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, said Sudan wanted Africans to make up the entire mission, but if that was not possible, it would accept contributions from "friendly" countries. If that still were not enough, then Sudan would accept troops from any part of the world, Malwal said. US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack had noted Tuesday that African countries lack the assets to provide the full number of troops without support from outside the continent. Sudan has accepted the mission; "now it is up to the international community to find the troops and fund these troops," Malwal told The Associated Press by telephone from Addis Ababa. "Probably you are looking at October because it will take time for people to get together and the money put together, but there are states that are ready to move in in August and fund themselves." Malwal declined to name the "two or three" African countries he said were ready to deploy. The UN and Western governments have been pressing Sudan for months to accept a UN plan for a larger "hybrid" force of UN and AU peacekeepers in place of the 7,000-strong AU force now in Darfur. The ill-equipped and underfunded AU force has been unable to stop four years of warfare that have left more than 200,000 dead. Malwal said AU and UN officials presented a revised plan for the joint peacekeeping operation to Sudan during a two-day meeting in Addis that ended Tuesday, The Sudanese diplomat said that it was now up to the African Union's Peace and Security Council and the UN Security Council to approve the revised plan and implement it. A Security Council delegation is expected to visit Sudan and the African Union at week's end. Since the proposal for the joint mission to Darfur was first made in November it remained unclear who would be responsible for securing the border, said Malwal. On Tuesday it was agreed Sudan would be responsible for border security, he said. "It is an issue of sovereignty," he said. Sudan's position echoes that of neighboring Chad, which initially supported a proposal to have a United Nations force along their common border to guard against the Darfur conflict further spilling into Chad. But Chad has recently been resisting such proposals, saying they infringe on its sovereignty. The other key assurance Sudan got was the peacekeeping mission's stay in Darfur would be reviewed regularly and, "if there is a political settlement that satisfies all parties, then it was agreed there will be no heavy troop presence in the country," said Malwal. The Sudanese diplomat also said that even though the initial plan in November was to have the joint force implemented in three phases, now it is likely to be implemented in one step. He said that the head of the mission will be Rodolphe Adada, a former Republic of Congo foreign affairs minister, who was appointed in May by the African Union Commission's chairman and the UN secretary-general. Last week, the UN and AU chief executives said they resolved the dispute over command of the force. A senior UN official said technical agreements - which have not been made public - give the UN overall operational control while delegating day-to-day operations and decisions on troop deployments to an AU commander. More than 200,000 people have died in Darfur and 2.5 million chased from their homes since 2003, when local rebels took up arms against the Sudanese government, accusing it of decades of neglect. Sudanese leaders are accused of unleashing the pro-government Arab militia, the janjaweed, to fight them - a charge they deny.