As more than two million refugees from the fighting in Darfur endure triple-digit temperatures under the blazing African sun, the Sudanese government is sending mixed messages about whether it is willing to allow international peacekeepers to take up positions in the strife-torn region. A peace deal that the Sudanese government signed recently envisions a United Nations force replacing the 7,000 African troops now deployed in Darfur. But the Sudanese government official who signed the agreement now insists UN peacekeepers should stay out of the country.
The Darfur peace agreement notwithstanding, the refugees just keep coming. In the first four months of this year alone, the size of the refugee camp at Gereida in southern Darfur tripled. It is now home to more than 100,000 people and there is nothing here for them. No tents, no plastic sheeting and no shelter from temperatures that top 115 degrees by the mid-afternoon.
The latest arrivals tell of fresh violence, some of it perpetrated by the government-backed Janjaweed militia. But some of it is now the result of infighting between the rebel groups here that are seeking a fairer shake from the government in Khartoum.
The only force protecting innocent civilians: 7,000 troops deployed here by the African Union. They patrol an area the size of France, and UN official
Jan Egeland says they are vastly outmanned and outgunned. "These are our hope, these African Union forces. But they are too few. And they have too little ability to move quickly and proactively to crisis areas. They need to be better-resourced and need, I believe, a more proactive mandate."
With the peace agreement signed, the African Union says it wants the United Nations to take over peacekeeping responsibilities in Darfur. And so does the United States - the Bush administration wants an initial force of 14,000 UN peacekeepers to take up positions in Darfur. But in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, some government officials are saying not so fast. And they include the man who actually signed the peace agreement on the government's behalf.
Mazjoub Al Khalifa Ahmed says the only force bringing peace to Darfur should be an African one. "Let us come up with something workable and practical that will not jeopardize the sovereignty of the country, and will maintain peace on the ground. There is no need to fail the AU and make a transition from the AU to the UN."
It is not only the Sudanese government that is claiming UN peacekeepers might breach Sudan's sovereignty. Al Qaeda's leader, Osama bin Laden, is urging his followers to wage a jihad against any UN force that is deployed in Sudan a country that granted him refuge back in the 1990s.
The man who invited him to Sudan, is now rejecting that threat from the Al Qaeda leader. Dr. Hassan Al Turabi says UN peacekeepers will be safe in Sudan. "For the moment, I, as a matter of need and necessity, I welcome any interference. It doesn't have to come from any particular countries who are suspect of having ulterior motives."
And the UN is indicating some willingness to compromise on the force's composition, to avoid the prospect of an overwhelmingly white force moving in to resolve an African problem.
Egeland says "We believe it is in the interests of Sudan, in the interests of the people, in the interests of all Sudanese and certainly the government that there is such a force in the future. Well funded, with African, Arab, Asian, European and other forces. And that it will have regular budget funding from the UN, and therefore be more securely resourced.
Even if the government in Khartoum laid out the welcome mat immediately, it would take at least 6 months of planning and pre-positioning before the UN operation could get underway. That is at least another six months of fear and uncertainty for the refugees of Darfur.