- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Lagos, Nigeria — Helicopter gunships throbbed over the dusty streets of El-Fashir as the Sudanese government continued its latest offensive in Darfur in defiance of a U.N. resolution passed last month calling for a peacekeeping force.

John Prendergast, the Washington-based head of the International Crisis Group’s Africa program, said he saw burned-out villages and spoke with refugees who had been attacked by roving bands of heavily armed men in pickup trucks. He returned from rebel-held territory Aug. 28, the day before the government began its latest offensive.

“Humanitarian access has shrunk dramatically in the last two months, violence has increased and, on top of that already gloomy picture, we have a fresh offensive,” he said. “Nothing the U.N. Security Council has done in the last three years has affected the situation on the ground one bit. The latest resolution is the worst kind of posturing. They should impose targeted sanctions on Sudanese leaders and speed up investigations by the [International Criminal Court].”

Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and 2 million have been displaced since African rebels took up arms in 2003 to protest a perceived bias from a government dominated by Arabic speakers. The rebels say that Sudan’s oil revenues are held in Khartoum and that the other regions are left impoverished.

In response to the rebellion, Sudanese government forces armed and organized Arabic-speaking tribesmen into Janjaweed militias, which rape, torture and kill the civilian population.

A succession of peace agreements — the last signed in May in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital — have failed to take hold. Rebel leader Minni Minnawi signed the May deal under pressure from Washington, but leaders of two other factions refused. Former Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick, who midwifed the agreement, has since left the Bush administration to join Wall Street.

In an echo of the divide-and-rule tactics that claimed 2 million lives during Sudan’s civil war in the south, Mr. Minnawi’s forces have joined the government side and are battling their former allies. Late last month, their new uniforms filled the streets of El-Fashir, and foreigners were warned to stay indoors in case of anti-U.N. demonstrations.

Mr. Minnawi, a slight, chain-smoking former teacher, has accepted a government post. Mr. Prendergast thinks Mr. Minnawi’s troops are targeting civilians because of their perceived support of rebels who did not sign the agreement.

“The U.S. is responsible for this debacle,” Mr. Prendergast said. “[We] waded in, jammed an inadequate deal down the rebels’ throats, got only one to sign it and left. Then we totally disengaged.”

Gen. Collins Ihekire, the Nigerian head of the African Union’s 7,000-member peacekeeping force, said the perception that the force was helping implement an unfair peace agreement was hampering the AU effort even more than a lack of resources.

The rebels “are not seeing us as partners in the peace process but as legitimate targets,” he said by telephone from northern Darfur. Two AU soldiers were killed in an ambush late last month, he added, and more attacks are expected. Most of the peacekeepers had not been paid since May.

Last month, Sudan announced plans to move more troops into the region. Outgunned and outnumbered, AU soldiers could only sit helplessly and watch during a recent attack.

The insecurity is inhibiting aid distribution, said one observer who asked not to be named because outspoken aid agencies have been threatened with expulsion.

“There’s a lot of tension in the camps over the [peace agreement],” she said. “A few months ago, we would have felt safe in the camps, and now we really don’t know.”

Nine aid workers were killed in July, some of them after rumors that camp wells were being poisoned, she said, and the number of hijackings has increased sharply. Relations also were strained among ethnic groups in the camps, which are split over the peace deal.

“It’s frustrating because we stabilized the humanitarian indicators, but we face the prospect of all that going backwards very quickly,” she said.

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