The United States said Wednesday it is pushing for deployment of a United Nations peacekeeping force in Sudan's troubled western Darfur region by October 1. The mandate for the African Union observer mission now in the region ends at the end of September.
Officials here insist the Darfur peacekeeping issue remains a high priority for the Bush administration despite the Middle East crisis, and that they believe the matter should be next on the U.N. Security Council agenda after Lebanon.
An agreement signed in Nigeria in May between the Sudanese government and the main Darfur rebel group was supposed to have ended the three-year-old conflict.
But is has instead sparked violence between rebel factions that has displaced thousands of people and endangered aid workers, eight of whom were killed in July attacks according to the United Nations report this week.
At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the administration remains deeply engaged in Sudan diplomacy and that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is devoting time to the issue even while trying to work out a U.N. resolution on Lebanon.
McCormack said a political solution in Darfur based on the May 5th peace deal is the ultimate answer to the violence but that the United States wants to see the new U.N. force, built on the existing African Union mission, in place by the October first target date.
"The A.U. has said that they want that turnover to take place by October first. That date's coming up on us real fast. We support the A.U. in that, and we're pushing hard at the U.N. and elsewhere to try to make that happen. That ultimately is going to, along with the good faith steps by parties to the Darfur peace agreement and the comprehensive peace agreement, bring greater peace and stability to Sudan," he said.
The U.N. Security Council approved an American-sponsored resolution in May calling for the current seven thousand member A.U. mission in Darfur, which is hampered by financial and logistical problems, to be doubled in size and transformed into a full-fledged U.N. peacekeeping force.
However, the Sudanese government, after initially signaling support for the idea, has refused to accept the expanded U.N. mission, which would largely rely on African troops.
The Khartoum government recently appointed a commission to study the issue. U.S. officials say privately they hope that will be a mechanism by which the Sudanese authorities again reverse course and allow the force to deploy.
The Save Darfur Coalition, a grouping of some 170 religious, human rights and aid organizations, placed an ad Wednesday in the local newspaper near President Bush's Texas vacation home, urging him to push for deployment of the U.N. force and to name a special envoy for Darfur.
Former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, who had been the Bush administration's policy point man for Darfur and helped negotiate the Abuja agreement in May, resigned his post several weeks ago and has not been replaced.
Spokesman McCormack said the idea of a Darfur special envoy merits consideration, though the Bush administration has generally opposed such appointments on grounds that they duplicate efforts of regular U.S. diplomats.