TOPICS: Urgent calls for more troops to Darfur

Amid new escalation in fighting in Darfur, Sudan, there’s fresh pressure on the international community to step in to help stop the three-year-old conflict.

It comes as consensus is hardening in Western capitals and at the UN that the 7,000 African troops now in Darfur, as part of a force supplied by the African Union (AU), are inadequate. Because of limited training, equipment and marching orders, the AU troops have been unable to contain the fighting, provide safety for civilians, or adequately protect humanitarian aid groups operating in the desert region.

The AU mission “is costing a fortune and nothing’s happening” except that the mission “is going broke and will have no more supplies within a month or so,” says Richard Cornwell of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa. That means the international community, which is under political pressure to help in Darfur “has to decide where it’s going to put its money and how,” he says.

This week, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan met President Gorge Bush to push for US support on Darfur. Bush, who is under pressure from Christian conservatives to act, remained non-committal. A February 3 UN Security Council resolution authorised sending UN troops to replace the AU force — although experts say it could be six to nine months, at the earliest, before such blue-helmeted soldiers arrive.

Meanwhile, 30,000 people have been displaced from their homes in just last month, the UN says. And some two million people — half of Darfur’s population — are living in camps where they are under threat of attack. Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group urged Bush to push for up to 20,000 NATO troops to be sent. But NATO has so far proved reluctant to seriously entertain the idea.

Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, visiting Darfur peace talks in Nigeria, had harsh words for the government and rebel sides. “Progress in the talks has been far too slow,” he said, scolding both sides for ignoring a long-tattered ceasefire. “The international community is not going to allow those individuals who are responsible for gross human rights violations or blocking the peace process to escape the consequences of their actions,” Straw warned. The UN Security Council is considering sanctions against rebels and members of the Khartoum government.

The war broke out in 2003, with Darfur rebels crusading against what they see as economic and political marginalisation by the central government in Khartoum. The government responded by arming and supporting so-called janjaweed militias, who’ve since been targeting civilians in Darfur. The conflict, which is occurring amid the spreading Sahara Desert, is between Arab janjaweed, who have links to the area’s traditional cattle-herders, and black African farmers — although the reality is more nuanced. The International Criminal Court is investigating whether war crimes have been perpetrated. The US says genocide has occurred in the region. — The Christian Science Monitor