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Darfur's Tangled Conflict Wages On

The five-year-old conflict between Khartoum and rebel forces in Sudan's Darfur region continues to worsen with increased banditry, rebel infighting, and attacks on civilians and joint United Nations-African Union peacekeepers.

In 2006, there were two rebel groups in Darfur. They were the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army, or SPLMA, and the Justice and Equality Movement. Only the SPLMA signed a wealth and power-sharing peace agreement with Khartoum that year. But many analysts say the agreement has since dissipated, leading rebel forces to break up into as many as 30 splinter groups with varying agendas.

Michael Swigert of the Washington-based advocacy group Africa Action says infighting among these factions adds to Darfur's explosive mix that already includes the government-armed Janjaweed militia, accused of perpetrating some of the worst atrocities against civilians since the conflict began in 2003, and tensions with neighboring Chad.

"You have the Chad-Sudan proxy war that is being waged across the Darfur border between Chad and Sudan. We have seen attacks by rebel groups. The rebels are a big part of the problem and particularly the fracturing of some of these rebel factions that really blur the line between any political rebel group and just pure banditry. And then the same attacks on civilians by the Janjaweed militia," says Swigert. "The government-directed violence is much more sporadic just like we saw in February of 2008, where Sudanese armed forces were actually bombing civilian targets in the same way that they were doing in 2003, 2004, 2005. But overall, the climate is definitely one of lawlessness and lack of accountability."

Who is to Blame?

The Sudanese government has been accused of engaging in genocide in Darfur, a charge Khartoum denies. The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has filed charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. Khartoum has rejected the court's jurisdiction.

Some observers blame both the government and the rebels for fueling the conflict that has claimed up to 300-thousand lives and displaced more than two-million people. But the International Crisis Group's Senior Vice President Mark Schneider says it is ultimately the responsibility of the Sudanese government to rein in its own forces in Darfur.

"There are a variety of organizations with weapons who do not respond to any legitimate authority. That is, rebel groups that have their own interests and objectives. You have a variety of forces engaged. The question is, however, who has legal responsibility for controlling its own militias [i.e., the Janjaweed]? And that is the government of Sudan," says Schneider. "The Janjaweed militia exists in direct violation of one of the first resolutions adopted by the [U.N.] Security Council in 2004, which demands that the government of Sudan disarm the militia."

While Sudan denies that it is arming the Janjaweed, some observers suspect the militia of orchestrating this month's ambush of a joint United Nations-African Union patrol that killed seven soldiers and wounded 19 others.

Africa Action's Associate Director for Policy and Communications, Michael Swigert, says the joint U.N.-A.U. force of about nine-thousand peacekeepers that deployed earlier this year cannot maintain its legitimacy and credibility in the eyes of Darfuris, if it is unable to defend itself.

"The international community needs to continue to work with some troop-contributing African countries to get them the training, get them the resources, whether its helicopters, whether it is training on how to interact with displaced persons camps. And then the international community needs to put pressure on the government of Sudan to stop restricting deployment," says Swigert. "There have been restrictions on night flights, restrictions on their access to land for bases, restrictions on the mobility of the U.N.-African Union troops, on where they can go. Part of the reason that this force has been ineffective to this point is that the mandate for resolution 1759 authorizes 26,000 troops and police for Darfur, and we are nowhere near that right now."

Sudan has insisted that only African troops deploy in Darfur. But many experts say that restriction cripples the peacekeeping effort because the African Union has neither the personnel nor the resources to shoulder the mission by itself.

International Efforts

The international community is also at fault, says Emira Woods of Foreign Policy in Focus, research group at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington.

"We have to look at the support for this force by the member states of the U.N., by the international community overall. It is one thing to call on a force to be established, and it took so long to actually have that happen. But what is also needed is the financial and material support from the international community," says Woods. "The force in Darfur has been calling for member states of the United Nations to provide the helicopters that would be needed for them to effectively implement their mission. This request has gone unheard now for well over six months."

The World Policy Institute's Swadesh Rana, former Chief of the U.N. Conventional Arms Branch, says once the U.N.-A.U. force is fully operational, its first task should be to isolate the various conflicts in Darfur. She foresees two possible outcomes for the Darfur crisis within the next five years.

"One, that Darfur becomes an autonomous country like East Timor did. But for that, there are too many factions on the ground to combine. And if that happens, the international community and the U.N. will have another small state, which may not be economically viable," says Rana. "And the other possibility of course is - like Somalia - to desegregate the issues on the ground and get the various factions to understand that the international support is there for them - but it will not be there endlessly."

What is needed, most analysts agree, is a new peace agreement for Darfur between the Sudanese government and a unified rebel movement similar to the 2005 wealth and power-sharing accord that ended 21 years of civil war between North and South Sudan.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.