Sudan's Two Faces

Khartoum signs important agreement on peacekeepers the day after launching air strikes in Darfur.

Sudan's Two Faces

Khartoum signs important agreement on peacekeepers the day after launching air strikes in Darfur.

Wednesday, 27 February, 2008
Many lauded the signing of a legal framework for some 9,000 peacekeepers in Darfur from the United Nations and the African Union on February 9.

The Status of Forces Agreement resolved a number of critical problems faced by the fledgling force that has so far failed to quell the violence in the war-torn Darfur province of western Sudan.

The deal, which comes more than a month after the UN troops took over peacekeeping duties in Darfur, will allow this hybrid force composed largely of soldiers from African countries to move freely about the country, communicate at will, and also to include non-Africans.

With the signing, the Sudanese government has dropped restrictions which were previously handcuffing the force. The agreement also appears to have removed the threat to the peacekeepers from Sudanese forces, which in early January attacked a UN convoy in Darfur as it attempted to deliver supplies to refugee camps.

But even as officials in Khartoum signed the documents and held press conferences hailing the agreement, an estimated 12,000 or more refugees from Darfur were fleeing into neighbouring Chad to escape the latest round of bloodshed.

On February 8, Sudanese helicopter gunships and fixed-wing aircraft bombed the towns of Sirba, Sileia and Abu Suruj, claiming they were striking rebel forces who operate in that part of West Darfur. The air strikes, which reportedly killed 200 civilians, came despite a UN ban on military overflights there - a prohibition the Sudanese armed forces routinely ignore.

The new influx of refugees into eastern Chad has only worsened the humanitarian situation there, with some 400,000 refugees already huddled in squalid camps.

Helene Caux, spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, told reporters that refugees claimed that they were also attacked by men on horses and camels, an apparent reference to the Janjaweed militia backed by the Sudanese government.

Darfur rebels later denied any having combatants in the area, which underscored widespread claims that Khartoum is waging war on civilians, not militias.

The predominantly Arab government in Sudan has been widely accused of committing atrocities against Darfur's ethnic African communities in a conflict which began five years ago and in which 200,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million displaced.

Last year, the International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague, Netherlands, released arrest warrants against two Sudanese nationals – one cabinet minister and a Janjaweed leader – for crimes against humanity and war crimes. Neither has been arrested so far.

The latest attacks came just a week after Chadian rebels based in western Sudan attacked Chad’s capital of N’Djamena, in a failed coup attempt against President Idriss Deby.

Sudan has accused Deby of supporting the rebels in Darfur.

The latest violence left many wondering which is the true face of Sudan, and whether the recently signed agreement on the peacekeeping troops will hold.

Many observers, including some close to the Sudanese government, suggest the authorities signed the agreement only under extreme pressure from the international community, to avoid yet another confrontation with the UN.

Minni Arcua Minnawi, a former Darfur rebel commander who is now an advisor to the Khartoum government, said it “signed under the pressure of the international community".

"I don't think any one can [now] launch violence against the [African Union Mission in Darfur] UNAMID," he said, referring to the Sudanese military.

However, he expressed concern that the deal might not hold because the government does not keep to agreements except when it is placed under pressure.

Minnawi also condemned the recent army attack in Darfur, calling it a “terrible massacre”, and invited an international inquiry.

Atim Grang, deputy speaker of Sudan’s national assembly and a member of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, SPLM, which controls the semi-autonomous South Sudan, echoed Minnawi’s sentiments.

"The government signed to prevent a confrontation with the international community,” said Grang, adding that it did so at the urging of South Sudan representatives.

Mohammed Yousif, Sudan’s state minister of labour, attributed the signing of the agreement to improved cooperation between the SPLM and Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party, NCP.

"The NCP [has] become more realistic in dealing with the internal and external facts and realities," said Yousif. "Political circumstances in Sudan will oblige the government to implement the agreement."

While some say the agreement is a sign of progress, others believe the attack in Darfur shows the true colours of Khartoum.

“The Sudanese government is once again showing its total disregard for the safety of civilians,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at the international watchdog group Human Rights Watch.

Government troops and allied militias have been attacking villages indiscriminately, without distinguishing between the civilian population and rebel combatants, in violation of international humanitarian law, she said.

According to Gagnon, these large-scale attacks on villages will be catastrophic for Darfur’s unprotected civilians.

“The Sudanese government’s own police pulled out in December because of the fighting, and the UN force simply doesn’t have the capacity to protect them,” she added.

Because of the fighting, humanitarian agencies have not been able to reach the area for the past month, she said. As a result, about 160,000 civilians in northern West Darfur are not receiving essential humanitarian assistance.

Michael Swigert, a policy analyst with the Washington-based advocacy group Africa Action, also expressed doubts about Sudan’s willingness to cooperate over Darfur.

Responsibility has now shifted from Sudan to the international community to fully fund and equip the peacekeeping force in Darfur, which it has been slow to do, he said. He noted that although a few badly-needed helicopters have been provided by Bangladesh and neighboring Ethiopia, it is only the beginning for a force of 9,000 that is supposed to be 26,000 strong.

While the US may not provide troops, he said, it can exert diplomatic pressure not only on the Sudanese government but also on its supporters, such as China. Likewise, the various Darfur rebel groups, which have been unable to unite or to engage in peace talks with Sudan, need to be involved in the process, he said.

“I think that what we’ve seen with Sudan in the past is that they’re completely willing to renege on their agreements unless there is international pressure to do otherwise,” said Swigert.

That pressure has to be led by the US and European nations, he added. “[If not,] then we’re going to see more violence in Darfur.”

Ahmed El Sheik is a journalist in Khartoum. Peter Eichstaedt is Africa Editor for IWPR.

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