Obasanjo warns of ‘near-genocide’ in Darfur

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo has warned of the possibility of genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region, and called on Sudan’s government and the international community to act, as African peacekeepers struggle to curb the violence there.

In an address to African and western diplomats at the headquarters of the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, on Tuesday, Obasanjo - president of the largest contributing country to the AU’s protection force in Darfur - set out the need for the AU to hand over to the United Nations there, while retaining its African composition.

"It is not in the interest of Sudan nor in the interest of Africa, nor indeed in the interest of the world, for us all to stand by, fold our hands and see genocide in Darfur," Obasanjo said.

The United States and some relief agencies have described the three-year-old conflict in Darfur as "genocide" before, but the pan-African body has always avoided using the word to describe the ongoing violence in the western Sudanese region. The term has also been rejected by the Sudanese government.

"We have seen near genocide before the intervention of the AU forces; we should not allow a full genocide to develop," Obasanjo repeated later at a joint news conference with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

"If nothing is done and AU forces have to withdraw, we do not know what can develop in Darfur," he insisted. "We should not allow that."

Nigeria has 2,300 troops in Darfur out of 7,200, with Rwanda, Gambia, South Africa and Senegal also contributing peacekeepers.

At least 200,000 people are estimated to have died from fighting, famine and disease, and 2,5 million people have fled their homes in Darfur, since fighting began between rebels, government forces and pro-government militias in February 2003.

"The great challenge before us now is how to strengthen and sustain [the AU Mission in Sudan] until the transition to a UN mission with the support and cooperation of the government of Sudan, and while retaining its African ownership and character," Obasanjo said.

In August, the UN Security Council agreed to send 17,000 UN troops and 3,000 police to Darfur to take over from the AU mission. But Sudan’s government has repeatedly rejected a transfer to the UN, calling it an attempt to recolonise Sudan.

Last month, the AU decided to boost its mission to 11,000 troops, but said its plans were uncertain because of a lack of funding and transport. "If the need arises, and if the AU has to secure more troops, and if the resources are found, Nigeria will surely consider giving more troops to the AU," Obasanjo said.

The AU is waiting for a formal response from Sudan on when a UN support team of 200 staff intended to support it will be permitted to deploy to the Darfur region, the AU said on Tuesday. "We have received information informally that the government is willing to facilitate this arrangement, but we have not seen a formal decision yet from the government," the ambassador of the AU’s mission to Sudan (AMIS), Sam Ibok, told IRIN on Tuesday.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and AU Peace and Security Council Chairman, Alpha Omar Konare, wrote to Sudan’s President Omar al Bashir in September, appealing to him to allow the UN to support AMIS with communications equipment, logistics and transport. In early October, Sudan agreed.

The UN package includes about 100 military advisers. "We are very keen on making sure that they start getting deployed soonest," UN spokeswoman Rhadia Achouri told IRIN.

Since a 5 May peace accord for Darfur - signed by only one of three rebel negotiating factions - the AU has been able to do little but monitor and observe increased violence in the region, with inter-rebel clashes and the emergence of a new rebel alliance.

Obasanjo called on the two Darfur rebel groups that have not signed the AU-negotiated peace deal to sign the pact. Rebel factions who refused to sign said it did not meet their basic demands of political power-sharing and as much monetary compensation for ethnic majority Fur victims of the war in Darfur, as already promised to minority Zaghawa victims.

The AU says Sudan is now considering raising the amount of compensation from US $30 million to $100 million. But Ibok stressed that non-signatories to the deal were still unlikely to sign unless further agreements were reached on security and the disarmament of government-backed Arab militias, known as janjawid.

The Darfur conflict began when rebels attacked Sudanese government positions, complaining that Darfur remained undeveloped due to neglect by the central government. The government has been blamed for arming ethnic Arab militias to crush the rebellion, using a brutal campaign of arson, rape and murder.

In another development, Médecins Sans Frontières aid agency said on Tuesday that four of its workers had been attacked, beaten and one international female member of staff sexually harassed in Darfur, the latest in an escalation of violence since the May peace deal. "These attacks have become more and more frequent in recent months and have the effect of limiting humanitarian access," MSF France's deputy head of mission Marc Galinier said.

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