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UN force urgently needed in Darfur

TWO WEEKS AGO, while in Darfur, Sudan, I accompanied an African Union military protection unit on a seven-hour patrol. The patrol that day went out to accompany and protect women as they searched for firewood as far as 15 kilometers, more than 9 miles, from the camp where they have been living since their villages were destroyed by government-backed militia two years ago.

The patrol proceeded without incident. We passed several groups of camel nomads, undoubtedly armed, but none approached. As I remarked to the commander about the effectiveness of this patrol, he answered, ''Yes, but we are bulls without horns."

This commander, as well as every other African Union officer I spoke with in Darfur, acknowledged the organization's limited impact -- their mandate is too narrow, their numbers are too small, and their logistic, light armament, and communication support are grossly insufficient.

Nearly 18 months after then-US Secretary of State Colin Powell first labeled the war in Darfur a genocide, the Bush administration now appears to realize that the cease-fire monitors have been ''protection on the cheap," as one diplomat stated, and cannot solve this crisis. Of the estimated 300,000 who have been killed to date, up to one-half have died since Powell's statement.

During my most recent trip to Darfur in February I spent my time primarily with African Union forces on their military bases and on a military patrol. Generally, the organization succeeds in stabilizing displacement camps, dramatically reducing the number of women who are attacked and raped as they leave their camps to gather firewood.

However, 2 million Sudanese -- fully a third of Darfur's population -- are virtual prisoners in the squalid camps in which they have sought refuge. They cannot return to their lands for fear of the renegade militia that now roam the countryside and perimeters of the camps, attacking, plundering, and raping at will.

African Union officers state that their mandate only allows troops to observe and monitor; they do not intervene in conflicts. Both government-backed forces and rebel troops know this; fighting has continued on all fronts with impunity. Colonel Kamili, the Rwandan sector commander in Zalengei, Darfur, recounted to me how just one week earlier he went to investigate an outbreak of fighting in Jebel Marra and was turned back by a rebel roadblock. He felt he could do no more than return to his base and file a report.

In addition, African Union forces are grossly underequipped; the region's various militia are far better armed. One commander in southern Darfur, Lieutenant Colonel Dibba, reported to me that he has 136 troops in his military protection force. However, he has only five vehicles, one of which has been broken for months. They can only send out one patrol a day in three vehicles. The vehicles have radios, but there is no base station. They keep one vehicle in the base parking lot to communicate with the patrol.

This same military protection unit has just one satellite phone, but they operate with prepaid credit and they rapidly use up their monthly allotted minutes in the first week or two. They have only one interpreter for the 136 troops. It is impossible to communicate, let alone protect and enforce peace.

At the nearby 14,000-resident displacement camp, I heard countless stories of people being attacked and raped when they left the settlement to collect firewood or to attempt to return to their lands to farm. Just two days earlier, two women were assaulted by armed men on camelback. They ran back in such terror that one woman arrived in the camp with the skin on her feet completely torn off.

In recent months, the security situation throughout Darfur has further deteriorated. With Sudanese government forces and rebel groups continuing to attack, and with armed brigands becoming increasingly emboldened, the African Union has limited capacity to respond and has done little to slow the spiraling increase in violence and attacks -- with humanitarian groups and the forces themselves increasingly the target.

Recent proposals by President Bush and US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton are critically important -- and overdue -- and must be implemented:

The UN must supplement African Union forces with additional troops, for a total force of 15,000 to 20,000 soldiers.

While the UN provides this additional force, NATO needs to increase technical and logistical support and donor nations need to offer additional troops and equipment.

The UN force's mandate needs to be a stronger Chapter 7 status, meaning that peacekeepers can intervene in conflicts and actively enforce the cease-fire agreement.

Bush's $514 million supplemental funding request to Congress for Darfur peacekeeping and humanitarian aid must be passed without delay.

There is a strong consensus among African Union officers that a UN force is the answer. When I asked Colonel Raji, the Nigerian commanding officer in Nyala, if he felt it should be African Union or UN peacekeepers in Darfur, he recounted to me a Nigerian fable: ''A villager walking down the road saw a dangerous snake but could not kill it. Another man from a nearby village walking by was able to seize the snake and kill it. It doesn't matter who kills the snake. What matters is that it is dead."

Linda Mason is a member of the board of Human Rights Watch and chairman of Bright Horizons Family Solutions.

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