SUDAN WATCH: War looms again over Sudan's Darfur (Lydia Polgreen)

Thursday, August 31, 2006

War looms again over Sudan's Darfur (Lydia Polgreen)

International Herald Tribune
By Lydia Polgreen The New York Times
August 30, 2006
EL FASHER, Sudan

War looms again over Darfur

There is plenty of frantic shuttle diplomacy happening in the corridors of power in Khartoum, Washington and New York to avoid a new bloodbath in Darfur.

But here in the tense heart of the region, where the bombs will drop and the bullets will fly, everyone is nervously watching the Ilyushin cargo planes landing on El Fasher's busy airstrip, their holds packed with the stuff of war: troops, trucks, bombs and guns.

"The planes land, day after day, week after week, night after night," said a foreign military official at the airport who had seen the planes land and unload their cargoes.

As negotiations over a proposed UN force to shore up the shaky peace in Darfur limp along with no sign of compromise, the opposing sides in the conflict seem headed toward a large-scale military confrontation.

"Unfortunately, things seem to be headed in that direction," said General Collins Ihekire, commander of the beleaguered 7,000-member African Union force that is enforcing a fragile peace agreement between the government and one rebel group.

Nearly four months after signing the agreement, the government is preparing a new assault against the rebel groups that refused to sign, bringing Darfur to the edge of a new abyss, perhaps the deepest it has faced.

The conflict has killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced 2.5 million to flee their homes. But that may be a prelude to the deaths likely to come from fighting, hunger and disease.

In the past few months, killings of aid workers and hijackings of their vehicles, mostly by rebel groups, have forced aid groups to curtail programs to feed, clothe and shelter hundreds of thousands of people.

"We have less access now than we did in 2004 when things were really bad," said a senior aid official in El Fasher, speaking on the condition of anonymity because outspoken aid workers have been sanctioned and expelled by the government. "If there were a major military offensive you could be looking at a complete evacuation of humanitarian workers in North Darfur, which would leave millions without a lifeline."

Diplomatically, Sudan has taken a hard line, refusing to allow any international peacekeepers other than the small and powerless African Union force already in place, despite a request from the union to hand over its command to the United Nations.

A visit to Khartoum this week by Jendayi Frazer, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, failed to produce an agreement, and Sudan has so far snubbed the United Nations, potentially leaving the people of Darfur without any international peacekeepers to protect them.

The African Union force has enough money to keep going only until Sept. 30, when its mandate ends. It is perpetually running short of fuel, food and equipment, and its suppliers - like its soldiers - have waited months for payment and are reluctant to make new deliveries.

Worse, the force is finding itself increasingly drawn into battles between the government and the rebels.

Rebel leaders deny they were involved in an ambush on a fuel convoy this month in which two Rwandan soldiers were killed, but they say that the African Union is biased in any case because it brokered a peace agreement that they reject.

Most ominous is the looming confrontation between government troops and rebel holdouts, set to take place on a battlefield that is home to a quarter- million people and could easily set off a chain of battles across Darfur.

"In terms of loss of life it could dwarf the killings in 2003 and 2004," said a senior aid official, asking not to be named.

In that period alone, at least 180,000 people died from attacks on villages by government forces and their allied Arab militias, known as the janjaweed, and in battles with non-Arab rebel groups seeking greater power for their fellow tribesmen in the long marginalized region. The violence brought on widespread hunger and disease, often the most lethal killers here.

El Fasher was once a sleepy state capital in an impoverished, backward part of Sudan. Now it is a garrison town swarming with government troops in crisp new uniforms driving shiny trucks mounted with guns.

The government has made no secret of its intentions - it submitted a plan to the Security Council this month in response to a resolution calling for 20,000 UN troops here. Instead, the government said it planned to use 10,500 of its own troops to crush the rebellion, a move that would violate the peace agreement it just signed, according to Ihekire.

The rebel movements that refused to sign the Darfur Peace Agreement have massed in a vast swath of territory north of here, gaining strength and flexing their muscle in attacks on government troops and its allies, as well as on the African Union forces.

In an interview deep in the territory they hold, commanders of the new rebel alliance, the National Redemption Front, said they were ready for a fight. "Our capabilities are unlimited, on the air and on the ground, to repel them," said Jarnabi Abdul Kareem, a commander.

The splintering and reforming of the rebel groups in the chaotic period since the peace agreement was signed was evident in their makeshift logos. On one truck, the initials of the rebel group had been changed so many times that the jumble of acronyms had become a collection of illegible smears.

Seated in a circle under a thorny tree, leaders of the front, joined in collective hatred for the signers of the peace agreement, say they came back to the battlefield reluctantly. "We are holding arms in our left hand but an olive branch in our right," said Abubakar Hamid Nour, a commander of the Justice and Equality Movement, an Islamist group that has joined with a faction of the Sudan Liberation Army to fight the government.

The battles over this patch of earth have already exacted a terrible toll. On the outskirts of Hashaba, people displaced by the fighting as far back as 2003 have settled, their camps becoming semi-permanent villages. There are few men here - just a handful among dozens of drawn-faced women and wiry children with ochre-tinted hair, a telltale sign of malnourishment.

At a clinic run by the International Rescue Committee, an aid organization, Hassan Ibrahim Isaac said he opens the clinic every day, writing futile prescriptions for the sicknesses that kill here: malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia. But the clinic's pharmacy ran out of antibiotics and anti-malarial drugs long ago.

"I still come because I don't want people to give up hope," Isaac said. "But now fewer people come. They know I have nothing to give them."

Military officials for the African Union said the new government assault could take shape in two ways - government troops could build up along an axis between El Fasher and the towns of Mellit and Kutum, using a scissor-like advance aided by Antonov bombers and attack helicopters to wipe out as many rebels as they can, then force the rest to flee north.

Another possibility is that the government will attack from the south, where it holds ground north of El Fasher, and airlift troops to swoop down from the north as well.

Bombing attacks on Kulkul, a town that has changed hands several times in the chaotic period since the Darfur Peace Agreement was signed but had been a stronghold of the newly united rebel groups, already have pushed those rebels north to Umm Sidir and beyond, African Union commanders said.

Armed conflict on a vast scale seems so likely and the hope of a UN peacekeeping force arriving to ease the tensions so distant that a joke has been making the rounds of the military and aid officials here: The most important peacekeeper in Darfur now is the rain.

It turns the rough, dusty tracks that crisscross the arid plains and mountains into impassable bogs, and swells once-dry riverbeds into rivers easily capable of carrying off a Toyota Landcruiser, the military vehicle of choice.

But the rains end in the next couple of weeks.

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