African Union troops stationed in the war-torn Darfur region of western Sudan are increasingly coming under heavy criticism from aid agencies and even rebel groups, who say few numbers and a limited mandate make the troops virtually ineffective in abating the conflict.
The Darfur rebel group Justice and Equality Movement, or JEM, is the latest critic of the African Union troops brought in to monitor an earlier cease-fire agreement between it, another rebel group, and the Sudanese government.
In a statement delivered December 22, JEM leader Khaliel Abraheem called on the United Nations to bring in an international force to replace the AU troops, which he says are unable to protect civilians against attacks by the dreaded Janjaweed, an Arab-militia group believed to be aligned to the government.
His sentiments are echoed by the British Save the Children Agency. Its Emergencies Director Toby Porter, whose agency earlier this week pulled out of Darfur following the killings of four of its staff, told VOA the African Union's efforts to control the area have made little or no difference on the ground.
He says, "There's only one indicator that you can use to judge the success of those efforts, which is, are the people more secure? And it's absolutely obvious at the moment that attacks on civilians are continuing in Darfur, and therefore the efforts overall have to be judged as a failure."
As an example, Mr. Porter said two weeks ago, agency health care workers were treating many children who had bullet wounds by the gun fires between rebels and the government-backed Janjaweed militiamen. But he says humanitarian workers themselves can do nothing to improve the security situation in the area.
The AU's Peace and Security Council has authorized the presence of a total of three-thousand-300-and-20 personnel, including troops, cease-fire observers, and police officers.
The AU says its mission is to determine whether or not the government and the rebels are abiding by a cease-fire they signed during negotiations in April and to help humanitarian aid reach the people who need it.
But the AU troops are there primarily to protect the personnel and property of their mission. The AU says the troops can only protect those civilians they see to be directly under attack and within their resources and capability.
The AU troops are not allowed to arrest anyone or intervene in the fighting in any way. The Sudanese government is responsible for civilian protection.
There are currently almost 800 African Union troops stationed in Darfur. Critics call on the African Union to have more troops on the ground and to expand the mandate of those troops so that they can better protect civilians and to play a bigger role in stopping the fighting.
At the time Rwandan troops were sent to Darfur several months ago, Rwandan President Paul Kagame told the press that his soldiers would use force to defend all attacks on residents. He was quoted as saying: "In my view it does not make sense to give security to peace observers while the local population is left to die."
The AU troops themselves have expressed similar sentiments. According to a recent Washington Post investigation, troops are frustrated by their inability to arrest suspected janjaweed fighters and to only rely on negotiation - rather than force - to stop conflicts during their so-called confidence patrols.
The African Union says it recognizes the limitations under which the troops operate and is planning to increase the number of troops.
But the chairman of the AU Peace and Security Council, Geoffrey Mugumya says there have been no complaints from AU troops about their mandate.
He says the troops' negotiation has worked well on the ground. "In fact, they have managed to rescue some people in some circumstances. They have used power to rescue some people who have been abducted by different factions," he says.
Mr. Mugumya says the AU plans to send more than 800 police officers to help the Sudanese police protect civilians, maintain law and order, and gain credibility and confidence among the people, many of who accuse the Sudanese police and other government authorities of being behind attacks.
"The police will be going to the cities, to camps, they will be staying with the population to improve relationships between the population and the government, and then we feel like the abuses of human rights will be checked if they work with the Sudanese police," he says.
The London-based human rights watchdog Amnesty International says that the problem is not so much a limited mandate, but rather the lack of support given to the troops to carry out the mandate they have.
The deputy director of the group's Africa Program, Erwin van der Borght, explains.
He says, "We say that the text on the mandate as such is not the main issue. It's more their capacity to implement it, and the political support to ensure that there is enough pressure on the parties to the conflict to respect, for example the cease-fire, not to attack civilians, not to commit human rights violations, respect humanitarian workers and their access, etc. Until now, we don't believe that the deployment or enhanced mandate had a substantial impact on the security and the protection of civilians in Darfur."
Mr. van der Borght says the troops tend to operate in a vacuum, with little political support from the African Union and the U.N. Security Council to follow up on abuses the troops report.
He says the rebels and the government do not respect the cease-fire and continue with their fighting, and the AU troops lack resources to be able to go to trouble spots and to do their job effectively.
The Darfur war erupted in early 2003 when rebel groups rose up to protest what they say is political, economic, social, and racial repression from the government.
The Darfur conflict, which the United Nations calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis, has displaced an estimated one-point-five million people and has killed some 70-thousand people.