U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has opened high-level talks in Ethiopia in an effort to find ways to end escalating violence in Sudan's Darfur region. The secretary-general has proposed a plan to strengthen beleaguered African Union peacekeepers in Darfur by creating a hybrid force made up of African Union and U.N. troops. The new plan is viewed as a way to circumvent Sudan's repeated rejection of efforts to deploy U.N. troops in Darfur.
The meeting in Addis Ababa was called to address the escalation of violence against civilians in Darfur and neighboring Chad, and the Sudanese government's continued refusal to allow a U.N. peacekeeping force into the region.
Despite a U.N. resolution authorizing a 20,000 strong force to replace the African Union operation, Khartoum has strongly rejected it, saying the plan would violate its national sovereignty. Sudan has instead called for the strengthening of the 7,000 African Union peacekeepers and monitors.
The joint U.N. and African Union force that Mr. Annan is proposing would operate under U.N. and the African Union command.
Under the proposal, the U.N. would supply extra money, troops and equipment to the AU operation. The U.N. would also deploy several-hundred soldiers and police officers and become substantially involved in the command and control of peacekeepers.
Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College in the U.S. state of Massachusetts who closely monitors events in Darfur, says Mr. Annan's proposal amounts to accepting the position of Sudan's government regarding a U.N. force.
"What we are talking about undoubtedly is a force that will prove acceptable to Khartoum," he said. "And Khartoum knows now that it is in the driver's seat. And I think we can be sure that Khartoum, having rejected a proposal from Egypt, having rejected various other proposals, Khartoum will hold out for a minimalist augmentation of the African Union. It certainly will be no force [that] can possibly protect the more than four million in greater humanitarian theater of Darfur and eastern Chad."
Leslie Lefkow is a researcher in the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. She says it is too soon to know if the ideas that come out of the Addis talks will be implemented. But Lefkow adds there is no doubt that certain elements must be included for such a proposal to really stop the violence directly mostly at civilians.
"We know what a force should look like," she said. "We know that to have some success and to be effective in protecting civilians, an international force in Darfur has to have sufficient numbers, it has to have a strong mandate and it has to have to kind of international backing that the African Union, so far, just has not had."
The meeting drew senior officials from the AU, the Arab League, the European Union, Sudan, the United States, China, Russia, France and a half-dozen African countries. During a break, Sudan's foreign minister, Lam Akol, told reporters his government was willing to allow some international support such as logistics and other technical assistance for the AU mission, but would never accept U.N. command of the proposed force.
Despite the signing of a peace deal between Khartoum and one rebel group in May, Darfur has descended into chaos and renewed violence reminiscent of the government's first all out offensive against rebels and the civilian population when the war erupted nearly four years ago. The fighting has spilled into Chad, displaced more than 2 million people inside Darfur and is believed to have left more than 200,000 people dead.