NATO on alert to provide help in Darfur Sudan
Nato ordered its planners yesterday to begin urgently drawing up proposals to help out in Darfur, where hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and more than a million displaced.
Nato's 26 ambassadors, meeting in Brussels, approved a request for help from the African Union, the pan-continental organisation, which has 2,600 troops on the ground.
This is the African Union's first peace operation and it is struggling, partly because of the scale of the crisis, partly because of a lack of experience, but mainly because of a lack of logistical support.
The AU, until now, has been reluctant to admit it is unable to cope, or to ask Nato for assistance.
The crisis in Darfur began two years ago when the Sudanese government, engaged in a conflict with rebels, used a combination of its own military and militia groups to attack isolated villages.
The UN assistant secretary general, Hedi Annabi, briefed the UN earlier this month that attacks on civilians, rape, kidnapping and banditry were on the increase. He said the attacks had been carried out by the militia.
International military involvement has grown rapidly from 12 months ago, when there were no international forces on the ground. In June last year, the AU had 10 monitors on the ground.
Soon afterwards, the AU put in 300 troops to protect them. The force has grown to 2,409 troops and 244 police. This is expected to rise to a total of about 3,200 by the summer, increasing to 7,700 in September.
A Nato official said yesterday that the organisation would not be putting troops on the ground and it should not be seen as comparable to Nato involvement in Kosovo and Afghanistan.
The priority for Nato in Darfur is to provide a team to help the AU with planning, co-ordination, communications and training.
Among the AU's requirements are helicopters, a necessity for operating in an area where roads are frequently im passable and where fast deployment is imperative in a conflict dealing with marauding militia bands.
A Canadian government representative offered at the Nato meeting to provide helicopters, and a British official said that if the US also offered to help with the airlift, that should be taken up.
A British official expressed hope that the AU force could be expanded further, to about 12,000. In addition, the UN is deploying 10,000 peacekeepers elsewhere in Sudan to maintain a ceasefire in the north-south civil war. The official suggested that eventually the two forces could merge into one UN peacekeeping force.
If it had been suggested at the outset that a UN peacekeeping force of that size, supported by Nato, would be put in place, the Sudanese government would have blocked it, the official said.
The AU presence is intended to reduce the violence and create a safe enough environment to encourage the million-plus people who have fled to camps to return home. The AU force is too small to cope with an area the size of France, and villages continue to be burned and refugees besieged in their camps. The militias have also become more difficult to deal with.
Nato only became involved in Darfur last week, when a team of two was sent from headquarters on a reconnaissance mission to the region.
The request for Nato help was made by the AU president, Alpha Oumar Konare, on Tuesday. "It is important we get the security situation under control very quickly," he said in Brussels. The Nato secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, said: "The principle should be that the AU is principally responsible. Nato has no ambition to be the gendarme of the world."
The AU has also asked the EU to help, but the British official said yesterday that it did not have the heavy airlifting capacity that Nato has. Details are to be worked out at a meeting next Thursday in Addis Abbaba, Ethiopia, attended by the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, and representatives of the AU, Nato and the EU.
Tags: Darfur Sudan Africa African+Union European+Union NATO