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New round of fighting is feared in Darfur

UN votes to send peacekeepers

Omar Bashir Mohamed Manis (left) of Sudan listened during a UN Security Council meeting yesterday on the Dafur violence.
Omar Bashir Mohamed Manis (left) of Sudan listened during a UN Security Council meeting yesterday on the Dafur violence. (AP Photo)

WASHINGTON -- The government of Sudan appears to have begun its long-feared military offensive in the troubled Darfur region against rebels who have refused to sign a US-brokered peace agreement, UN officials said yesterday.

Secretary General Kofi Annan's office said yesterday that it had received reports indicating that the Sudanese forces struck Monday in the remote area of Abu Sakin, about 50 miles north of the state capital Al Fasher, sparking fears that the new round of violence could leave tens of thousands more people dead or displaced.

As the reports surfaced, the UN Security Council voted to deploy as many as 21,600 peacekeepers to the region to replace 7,000 ill-equipped African Union troops whose mandate expires in September. US officials expressed optimism that at least part of the force could be activated almost immediately, since some of the African Union troops who are already on the ground would serve in the new force.

John Bolton , the US ambassador to the United Nations, called the deployment of peacekeepers ``the best hope to bolster the Darfur Peace Agreement and end the tragedy we are witnessing in Darfur."

But Sudan restated after the UN vote that it will not accept UN peacekeepers in Darfur, saying the force would violate the nation's sovereignty. Sudan has built up a massive military force of its own troops in the area, setting the stage for a confrontation with the international community.

``We completely reject this resolution . . . which is illegal," Majzoub al-Khalifa, Sudan's presidential adviser responsible for Darfur, told Al Jazeera television.

Sudan's envoys boycotted yesterday's UN meeting. The resolution passed by a vote of 12-0, with abstentions by Russia, China, and Qatar.

Sudan has been plagued with civil war for decades, as tribes in Sudan's southern and western regions have fought against the Arab government in Khartoum, seeking control over resources and political rights.

The conflict in Darfur, in western Sudan, erupted in February 2003 when non-Arab rebels took up arms against the government. Khartoum responded by arming Arab militias known as Janjaweed, who have been accused of murdering, looting, and raping civilians from tribes that are seen as rebel sympathizers.

Hundreds of thousands have died from violence, malnutrition, and disease, and more than 2 million people have been displaced in the conflict, according to humanitarian groups.

The Bush administration declared the violence in Darfur genocide nearly two years ago, but little has changed in the daily lives of civilians there. The African Union troops were deployed in 2004 to protect civilians. But they have so little access to vehicles and equipment that they often have difficulty protecting themselves.

The State Department has put its weight behind the peace agreement, signed in May, as the only way to end the violence. But the agreement fell so short of rebel demands that only one of three main rebel factions signed it. Now that faction, the Sudan Liberation Movement, led by Minni Minnawi , is accused of assisting in the Sudanese government's offensive.

``Minnawi has now become what many Darfuris call the `new Janjaweed,' " said Eric Reeves , a Smith College professor who has become one of the most outspoken advocates for Darfur in the United States. ``We are going to see the same thing [as the Janjaweed attacks in 2003], only Minnawi will perform that role."

Reeves said that Minnawi signed the peace deal and joined forces with the government because his political clout among the rebels had eroded, and that he was now seeking to gain back territory he lost to rebel rivals.

Indeed, when Sudan's president, Omar Al-Bashir, briefed Annan a month ago on his plan to ``restore stability" in Darfur, he proposed a phased build-up of 4,000 Sudanese troops by the end of September, backed by 2,000 of Minnawi's Sudan Liberation Movement troops, according to a copy of the plan. Bashir indicated that the troops would implement the peace agreement by launching an offensive against those who did not sign it.

Yesterday, Annan wrote Bashir to strongly urge that he accept UN troops instead. Fear of an impending surge in attacks on aid workers and civilians has already caused some humanitarian groups to curb their life-saving services in the region. Rebels have also been implicated in attacks on humanitarian convoys and civilians.

John Prendergast , senior adviser to the International Crisis Group, a global think tank, who returned Wednesday from an eight-day trip to Darfur and Chad, said he had received reports from contacts on the ground that Minnawi's forces were working with Sudanese government forces to attack the rebel groups that did not sign the peace treaty .

He said his contacts told him that Sudanese forces, the Janjaweed militias, and Minnawi's forces begun their attacks on Tuesday in the villages of Kulkul, Bir Maza, and Sayeh.

``The war is intensifying," he said. ``The humanitarian implications are worsening. The worst-case scenario is underway."

The attacks took place as Jendayi Frazer , assistant US secretary for African affairs, was in Sudan trying to persuade Bashir to accept a UN force.

The UN mission in Sudan reported to Annan's office earlier this week that it had received information that about 30 Sudanese Armed Forces vehicles had pushed the rebels out of Abu Sakin and now controlled the area.

Casualty figures from the offensive were not known, according to the report .

Yesterday, analysts accused former deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick of rushing the peace deal in May without including key provisions that would have persuaded more rebels to sign on, such as the transition of the African Union force to a UN force, the proper compensation for displaced people, and international monitoring of the disarmament of the Janjaweed militias.

``Zoellick had only a few days," Prendergast said. ``He left after only one [rebel] group had signed, and there were many other issues on the table."

``With the arrival of Zoellick and the determination to ram through a peace agreement . . . the issues of security guarantees and compensation were essentially dismissed," Reeves said.

Reeves also criticized the international community for refusing to deploy a force to Sudan without Khartoum's consent.

But Frazer told reporters yesterday that she was ``absolutely confident that ultimately the government of Sudan will accept" the UN force.

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