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U.N. chief calls for immediate strengthening of African Union force in Darfur

Associated Press

August 2, 2006

Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged the Security Council to immediately strengthen the 6,200-strong African Union force in Darfur and more than double it if the Sudanese government gives a green light for the U.N. to take over peacekeeping in the conflict-wracked western region.

In a 30-page report to the council circulated Tuesday, Annan laid out three options for a much more muscular U.N. operation "to establish a stable and secure environment to protect civilians" and support implementation of a peace agreement signed by the government and one rebel group in May.

The three options envision a U.N. force of between 15,300 and 18,600 troops, depending on the number of aircraft, helicopters and rapid reaction troops. Annan also proposed more than tripling the 1,560-strong African Union police contingent to about 5,300 U.N. officers.

If approved by the council, the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Darfur would become the U.N.'s largest, surpassing the 17,500-strong U.N. force in Congo.

But Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, has vowed to never allow U.N. peacekeepers into Darfur and Annan said the U.N. cannot take over without the government's consent and cooperation.

"Securing the consent of the government of Sudan will require continued intensive discussions with Khartoum by council members, by key member states and regional organizations, as well as by the United Nations," Annan said.

"No effort should be spared to send the simple, powerful message: International involvement will increase the chances of peace taking root in Darfur, will strengthen the credibility of the peace process and the protection of the suffering populations of Darfur," he said.

Answering Sudanese opponents of a U.N. force, Annan again stressed that "the United Nations has no hidden agenda," that troops for a U.N. force would primarily come from African and Asian countries, and that its primary goal would be to help implement the May peace agreement, "not to occupy the country."

The conflict in Darfur began when members of ethnic African tribes rose in revolt against the Arab-led Khartoum government in early 2003. Over 200,000 civilians have died, more than two million have fled their homes, and millions more have had their livelihoods destroyed, Annan said.

More than 2.5 million people affected by the war are receiving food, health care, shelter and other essentials from over 13,000 humanitarian workers from over 80 organizations, the Red Cross and 13 U.N. agencies, he said.

Annan warned that "the window of opportunity" provided by the Darfur Peace Agreement to stabilize the region "could close if there is no extra effort to implement it effectively." If the ongoing violence isn't addressed, he said, the overall situation could deteriorate.

"Alternatively, there may be an attempt to implement the agreement through force, including the forced return of internally displaced persons," Annan said. "If this should be allowed to happen, Darfur could descend into an even bloodier round of conflict that would be catastrophic for the people of the region."

With the Sudanese government blocking a U.N. force, the secretary-general called for the urgent strengthening of the African Union force, which could demonstrate the massive international effort aimed at reaching a lasting settlement to the conflict.

The AU force faces government restrictions, active hostility by some rebel groups, command and control difficulties, unpredictable financing, and insufficient mobility, communications and public information capabilities, Annan said.

In the short-term, he said, the United Nations could provide significant support in some of these priority areas and with other international help it could also add armored personnel carriers, heavy-duty vehicles, and additional aircraft to significantly enhance the AU's rapid response capability.

But the African Union has said it does not have the resources for a long-term peacekeeping mission and wants the United Nations to take over to help bring peace to Darfur.

The immediate strengthening of the AU force "and subsequent transition to a United Nations operation could reverse dangerous threats inherent to peace in Darfur and the region," Annan said.

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