Peacekeepers as targets: Darfur attack imperils talks

Posted in Africa | 02-Oct-07 | Author: Lydia Polgreen| Source: International Herald Tribune

A seriously injured African Union soldier is helped to a waiting helicopter to be evacuated for medical treatment after Sunday's attack.

DAKAR, Senegal: The deadly attack on an African Union peacekeeping base by rebels in Darfur over the weekend brought the credibility of the rebel forces to a low point. It also demonstrated the extent to which the force, struggling with minimal manpower and matériel to keep a nonexistent peace, has come to be seen by many non-Arabs in Darfur as at best ineffective and irrelevant, and at worst, a tool manipulated by the Sudanese government, in the view of some rebel groups.

The assault by 30 truckloads of Darfur rebels late Saturday and early Sunday on a small base in Haskanita, killing 10 peacekeepers from three African countries, threatened to undermine fragile efforts by the United Nations and the African Union to forge a peace agreement at talks in Libya later this month to end the conflict in Darfur, the region of western Sudan where at least 200,000 people have died and more than two million have been chased from their homes.

It will doubtless also make it more difficult to find enough troops for the 26,000-member United Nations-led peacekeeping force that is supposed to begin deploying at the same time.

Crucial to both efforts are two things: a working cease-fire agreement and the unification of the fractured rebel groups who are fighting the Sudanese government and, increasingly, one another. Both objectives were left in tatters by the Haskanita attack, said Suleiman Jamous, perhaps the most respected elder statesman among the rebels fighting in Darfur.

"As rebels, we are losing the sympathy of the international community because of lack of control and divisions within the movements," said Jamous, a leading figure in the original Darfur rebel movement, the Sudan Liberation Army. "It is unthinkable that a man who is fighting for the well-being of his own people can attack these peacemakers and mediators who are here to help him."

Though the senior leaders of the main rebel movements were not believed to be involved in the planning or execution of the attack, Jamous said, their failure to stop it demonstrated a loss of control and a new lawlessness that could cost the rebels dearly in negotiating power.

The attack, Jamous said, may have been based in part on the perception among some rebels that the peacekeeping force of 7,000 troops has become too weak to protect civilians and co-opted by the Sudanese government, hence a legitimate military target for rebel groups.

"People are frustrated that the African Union is not able to protect them," he said. "The Sudanese government has been able to control the AU's movements, and that makes people think they are on the same side."

Noureddine Mezni, a spokesman for the African Union force, said that notion was outrageous. "We completely deny this kind of allegation," he said. "We have been working in Darfur for three years. These African troops came here to help Darfurians."

Mezni said the attack might have been an attempt by a rebel faction to grab attention before the Libya talks. Similar violence, on a much smaller scale, broke out before talks in Nigeria that led to a peace agreement last year that ultimately failed.

Jan Eliasson, the United Nations special envoy for Darfur, said rebel groups involved in this attack would not find a place at the negotiating table, and he called for leaders to condemn it, which at least one senior rebel commander had done. "We hope very much that it will not derail the talks in Libya," he said.

For the African Union, whose troops are to make up the vast bulk of a highly anticipated joint peacekeeping force with the United Nations, the attack was another devastating blow.

After the death of a Senegalese soldier, the sixth this year in Darfur, President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal said Monday that he would pull out his 538 troops if they were not adequately equipped and empowered to defend themselves. Senegal had pledged to increase its commitment to 1,600 troops under the United Nations banner, and its withdrawal would be a major loss to the nascent force. Military officials in Nigeria, which has the largest number of troops in Darfur, also indicated Monday that they were concerned about the risk to their soldiers and were reconsidering their participation in peacekeeping efforts in Africa.

"It is disastrous because it puts the AU in a terrible bind," said Alex de Waal, a Sudan scholar who has written extensively about Darfur. "And who would commit forces to the United Nations force under these circumstances?"

After a United Nations Security Council emergency meeting on the attack, Zalmay Khalilzad, the United States ambassador, said there was "unanimity and outrage" on the Council and broad agreement on the need to find out who was responsible. He said further Council action like sanctions should be taken against the attackers once they are identified.

The attack is believed by several international officials to have been carried out by relatively junior commanders of a rebel faction known as SLA Unity and some dissident elements of the Justice and Equality Movement, an Islamist group with strong political connections in the region but few ground troops.

According to de Waal and Jamous, rebels in the area around the base were angry about bombardment of the region by government planes and the failure of the African Union to stop it. Rebel commanders said they overheard radio chatter between the Sudanese planes and the African Union base, and took that as evidence of cooperation. African Union officials dismissed that as preposterous, saying the organization had complained to Sudanese officials about bombs dropped too close to its base.

The rebel attack, de Waal said, seemed to be "an illustration of the political immaturity and recklessness of some of these rebel leaders."

Still, United Nations officials held out hope, pointing to the Sudanese government's acceptance of a United Nations peacekeeping force in Darfur and its willingness to reopen the failed Darfur peace agreement, signed last year by the government and one rebel faction.

"This is going to be extremely difficult, we know that," Eliasson said. "We now have these modest signs of progress. It is extremely important to nurture this plant and make sure we get to these talks."