UNITED NATIONS - The United Nations peacekeeping chief told the Security Council yesterday that a Sudanese attack this week on UN-led troops reinforces concerns that the force might be unable to protect itself or civilians in Darfur.
The violence, along with foot-dragging by the Sudanese government and the lack of necessary helicopters and equipment, might doom the peacekeeping effort, Jean-Marie Guehenno told the council.
"Without decisive progress on each of those three issues, we will indeed face dire consequences for the international efforts to help the Sudanese bring peace and stability to Darfur," Guehenno said.
On Monday night, an armed force in Darfur attacked a peacekeeping supply convoy of more than 20 vehicles marked with the UN logo. Guehenno said that the area commander for the Sudanese military confirmed responsibility for the attack shortly afterward by telephone.
Yesterday, however, Sudanese officials in Khartoum and New York denied responsibility and said rebels backed by neighboring Chad orchestrated the attack to put the government under pressure.
"They were not the government," Ambassador Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem said. "The rebels did that. No doubt about it."
The attack was only the most immediate problem facing the new peacekeeping mission. The African Union forces switched their berets from AU green to UN blue on Dec. 31, signaling the beginning of a joint peacekeeping operation by the two organizations that ultimately is expected to include 27,000 personnel. So far, about 9,000 troops and police are on the ground to protect civilians threatened by conflict in an area larger than California.
But Guehenno lamented that continued obstacles put up by Sudan make many countries reluctant to offer personnel and equipment. The government has rejected non-African soldiers and said it won't allow a team of Nordic engineers to come help build roads and airstrips, further delaying deployment.
Khartoum has not consented to night flights, has not supplied land and water for a base in some areas, and has not provided visas, Guehenno said.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Sudan's president, Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, after the attack, and the pair will meet in two weeks at an African Union summit in Ethiopia to iron out remaining technical and political obstacles to the deployment.
Guehenno told the Security Council last month that it might be better not to deploy a UN force at all than to deploy one that was too vulnerable, recalling tragedies involving overwhelmed peacekeepers in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.
But the need is desperate in Darfur, with more than 300,000 people newly displaced in 2007 and malnutrition rates rising, despite the decrease of attacks on civilians by government-backed militias that earlier in the decade drove more than 2 million people from their homes.
Aid workers are also at risk, with 13 killed and 147 abducted last year. Rebels continue to clash with government soldiers and militias, as well as with other rebel groups, over wealth, power, and land. Peace talks have made little headway to stop the four-year-old conflict.