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Rights Groups Call for Strong Support for AU/UN Force for Darfur

The U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus held a hearing Thursday on the joint African Union-United Nations peacekeeping force to be deployed to Sudan's Darfur region. Several members of Congress and a number of human rights activists called on the United States and European governments to make sure the peacekeepers have the equipment and firepower they need to protect Sudanese civilians. VOA's Cindy Saine reports from Washington.

U.S. Congressmen Donald Payne, a Democrat from New Jersey and Alabama Republican Robert Aderholt hosted a discussion on Darfur with a group of humanitarian workers who have been active in the Sudan's war torn region. They all said they hope the joint AU-UN peacekeeping force will be able to end four years of the rape and slaughter of civilians in Darfur.

John Prendergast represents the new ENOUGH campaign to prevent mass atrocities.

"Well if they deploy in the sufficient numbers, which is, you know, 26,000, you got to go the outer edge of the numbers [full strength] and they've got to be sufficiently provisioned with attack helicopters, with armed personal carriers and with the kind of firepower on the ground that they are going to need to act as a deterrent," said John Prendergast.

Prendergast called on the Bush administration and European governments to provide sufficient funds to equip the forces, and praised the U.S. Congress for its leadership on the Darfur situation.

The U.N. Security Council has approved a 26,000-strong force. If it is fully deployed, it would be the world's largest peacekeeping operation to date. The force would absorb the under-equipped and under-financed African Union forces of 7,000 currently deployed in Darfur.

A rebel attack Saturday killed 10 African Union peacekeepers and wounded 10 others.

Ethiopia has said it will offer as many as 5,000 soldiers to the joint force. Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Nigeria and Egypt have also pledged to contribute troops. Among other countries who have said they will contribute troops or logistical support are France, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Indonesia. Rwanda, South Africa and Zambia are among those currently participating in the AU force.

Scott Stedjan is a senior policy advisor for the humanitarian organization Oxfam. He praised the strong U.N. mandate for the force, but said its effectiveness will depend on its commanders.

"The question is now is whether the commanders on the ground interpret the mandate in a way that they actually will provide this protection," said Scott Stedjan. "Will they be doing the patrols around the camps and helping women to go get firewood or will they just stay in their bases as we have seen in the past?"

Stedjan said the peacekeepers should focus on military operations and protecting civilians, and leave humanitarian projects, such as building roads, to humanitarian groups. He said when peacekeeping troops participate in reconstruction projects, it blurs the lines between aid workers and international forces for some combatants, making relief workers more vulnerable to attacks.