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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 March 2006, 18:49 GMT
Darfur's doomed peacekeeping mission
By Jonah Fisher
BBC News, Khartoum

AU soldier in Sudan
AU forces have struggled to end the violence
The African Union is faced with the most difficult decision in its short history.

Created three years ago with the idea of "African solutions for African problems" at its heart, it must decide whether to handover its first major peacekeeping operation to the United Nations.

Seven thousand AU troops are deployed in Darfur but they have failed to end a conflict that has so far killed more than 100,000 people and left millions in overcrowded camps.

The last year has seen a steady deterioration on the ground with militia attacking civilians, rebel movements splintering and the arrival of armed groups from neighbouring Chad.

If someone hasn't got wings and you say he has failed to fly - I don't think you can call that failure
AU Darfur commander
Given the mess they were sent to resolve many feel the AU never stood a chance.

Originally deployed to observe a ceasefire that existed in name alone, the force was strengthened on a piecemeal basis until it reached its current size.

In a few areas the peacekeepers have made a difference - keeping the parties apart and encouraging some people to return.

But until recently they had to rely on pick-ups for transport leaving them vulnerable to attack and reluctant to step in when trouble flared.

Failure?

On those occasions where AU forces have found themselves in the midst of things it has gone badly.

In October 2005, four Nigerian soldiers and two contractors were killed in an ambush.

The very next day, 38 AU soldiers were taken hostage without a shot being fired. It was clear they were losing the respect of the warring parties.

Maj Gen Collins Ihekire is the Nigerian Force Commander of the AU in Darfur.

"If someone hasn't got wings and you say he has failed to fly - I don't think you can call that failure," he said when asked how he assessed then achievements of the AU mission.

"If we're given what we request for then we'll get the job done."

Maj Gen Ihekire would like to see AU assault planes and more troops but that now seems unlikely.

HAVE YOUR SAY
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Endalkachew Seyoum, USA

The United States and the European Union, who have funded the AU until now, are reluctant to give any more and want the UN to take over.

A UN mission they say would be bigger, better equipped and more capable of aggressively responding to Darfur's myriad armed groups.

Its estimated budget of $1bn would also be funded directly by all UN members.

About turn

Having regularly criticised the AU mission throughout its one-and-a-half years in Darfur the Khartoum government has suddenly become its biggest supporter.

Darfur refugees
Two million people have been displaced by fighting in Darfur
Sudanese diplomats have toured the continent lobbying African leaders and looking for the funds to keep the mission going. They have even threatened to quit the AU if things do not go their way.

On the domestic front, Khartoum's newspapers have led a government-backed anti-Western campaign.

Bounties have apparently been put on the heads of two Western diplomats and international journalists were labelled terrorists by a government minister.

President Omar al-Bashir has promised to make Sudan a graveyard for foreign intervention and government-backed militia say they are preparing for a holy war. The message they are trying to send is clear - Sudan is not safe for the UN.

"We don't want intervention in our internal affairs," Jamal Ibrahim, the foreign ministry spokesman said.

"We don't want it to lead public opinion into not respecting its own government."

Saving face

The irony of the Sudanese government's position is that it already has a large international presence.

Ten thousand mainly Asian peacekeepers are being deployed to southern and eastern Sudan and the UN's gleaming white four-wheel-drive vehicles can be seen all over the northern capital, Khartoum.

In Darfur, the AU has scores of international observers and advisers, and at least one American in every camp.

But with money running out AU foreign ministers must either find $200m a year to keep the mission going or handover responsibility.

Any UN takeover is likely to take between six and nine months - and the transfer would initially involve little more than a change of hat colour for the soldiers, from green to blue.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has approached the US and Nato for assistance but it is likely that Western help would be logistical and the bulk of troops remain African.

Having waged such a high profile campaign against UN troops a mechanism may yet be found to enable the Sudanese government to save face.

Western diplomats, however, are convinced that in the long-term, Khartoum and the AU will have little choice but to accept a bigger and more robust UN mission in Darfur.




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