Top Sudanese presidential adviser signals that Khartoum will allow mixed UN-African peacekeeping force in Darfur
KHARTOUM, Sudan – A top Sudanese official on Friday signaled that Khartoum would accept U.N. troops as part of an African-led peacekeeping mission in Darfur, but perhaps not as many as the West has asked for under an agreement aimed at ending the continuing violence.Khartoum backed off its previous fierce opposition to any U.N. troops in the region, but one Sudanese official said he expected African Union peacekeepers to supply most of the soldiers and another said the U.N. soldiers would only “assist” Union forces.U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced Thursday night that the multilateral agreement – reached in a gathering of African, Arab, European and U.N. leaders in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa – could provide for a total of as many as 17,000 soldiers and 3,000 police officers.Currently, the AU has just 7,000 is in the region.The deal, described as a “very constructive step forward,” by Annan’s spokesman Stephane Dujarric on Friday, came amid an upsurge of militia violence in Darfur.Reports say more than 50 civilians have been killed in the region in recent days, threatening to spread the conflict into the region where Sudan, Chad and the Central African Republic meet.Both neighboring countries accuse Sudan of encouraging local rebellions and of letting Darfur’s refugees and guerrilla groups cross their borders.For months, Sudan had strongly opposed allowing U.N. troops into Darfur and even questioned the use of the AU force in the region.But its representatives agreed in principle to a mixed U.N. and AU peacekeeping mission during the talks in Addis Ababa. The delegation said they had to consult with the leadership in Khartoum before giving final approval.Maghzoub al-Khalifa, the special adviser to the president on Darfur issues, confirmed that Khartoum accepted the general principles of the deal.”The concept of a mixed A-U.N. force for Darfur is not a problem, as long as it remains clear that the leadership of the force, and its largest component, remain African,” al-Khalifa told The Associated Press.”We can discuss the exact numbers and the command structure later, according to the needs in the field,” he said.But Sudan’s Foreign Minister Lam Akol downplayed the significance of the deal on state-run radio, insisting Khartoum’s stance had remained consistent.”What we are discussing and what is agreed upon, is an African Union force assisted by the United Nations,” he said.The mixed signals from Khartoum may be a face-saving effort by the government. For months, President Omar al-Bashir has rallied Sudanese public opposition to U.N. peacekeepers, saying he would personally lead the fight against them if they deployed.Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking to reporters traveling with her for a Pacific Rim economic summit, said the proposed compromise offered a chance for Sudan’s ostracized leaders to “make right with the international system.”A joint U.N.-AU statement said that the two forces already had begun cooperating in Darfur. Without spelling out the new peacekeeping force’s mandate, the statement said its mission would be to contribute to “the restoration of security and protection of civilians in Darfur” through the implementation of the Darfur Peace Agreement signed in May between Khartoum and one rebel group.The force also would “ensure full humanitarian access,” the statement said. It also said that the new peacekeeping force, unlike the current African Union mission, “must enjoy free and unhindered movement in Darfur.”No Sudanese official would specify when Khartoum would give its final word on the agreement. An African Union Peace and Security Council meeting is scheduled in the Republic of Congo on Nov. 24, during which Sudan should present its final views, Annan said.Sudan’s official news agency reported Friday that Eritrea would hold talks on Nov. 20 between Khartoum and the Darfur rebel groups that did not sign the peace accords.Abdullahi el-Tom, the head of strategic planning for the National Redemption Front -the coalition of rebels who oppose the Darfur peace deal, told the AP his group had accepted the Eritrean mediation. But he said it appeared not all rebel faction leaders agreed with the talks.The conflict in Darfur has killed at least 200,000 people and forced some 2.5 million from their homes over the past three years. In recent days, pro-government militia known as janjaweed have stepped up attacks on villages in Darfur, killing dozens of people, international observers said.The Sudanese army has denied any connection to janjaweed attacks, saying the claims were politically motivated.