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US Initiates Immediate Airlift for Darfur Peacekeepers

The Bush administration says it will waive a requirement to notify Congress 15 days in advance of undertaking an airlift of equipment for UN and African Union peacekeepers in Sudan. Congress and the American people have actively supported the president’s tough stand against the genocide that Washington contends is being waged against civilians in Sudan’s volatile western Darfur region. But some Sudan activists continue to push for stronger measures against the Bashir regime, whom they cite for fueling and sustaining the violence for more than five years. President Bush announced the airlift Monday at the White House after holding talks with Sudan’s First Vice President Salva Kiir Mayardit. Mr. Bush will discuss the crisis in Darfur again Tuesday at his final round of talks with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon before leaving office on January 20. Analyst Eric Reeves, a professor of English at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, is an author, lecturer, researcher, and consultant on Sudan for a number of human rights organizations that operate in the African country. He says the airlift proposal is not new.

“This is really extraordinary that they are billing this as a new initiative. The question is not the US ability to use its enormous airlift capacity. It has made that offer publicly. Jendayi Frazer, Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, travelling to Khartoum in early November, declaring then, over two months ago that the US was willing to use its airlift capacity to move troops and equipment. This is not new. I think it’s really a question of what there is to move in. Most of the time since the passage of UN resolution 1769, which authorized UNAMID (the joint United Nations African Union Mission in Darfur), there has been insufficient equipment or manpower that is ready or that Khartoum will permit to deploy,” he said.

Since the beginning of President Bush’s first term in office, US Africa diplomacy has actively been involved on several fronts in negotiations with the government of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, to enlist Sudanese support in the war against terrorism, to bring about an end to the 22-year-long north-south civil war in southern Sudan, and since 2003, to counter what the US government has charged is a deliberate policy of genocide being carried out in Darfur, which has led to the extermination of more than 200-thousand civilians and the displacement of more than two million others from their homes and communities. Although the Bush policy continues to draw support from numerous religious and human rights groups across the country, some Sudan activists in the United States continue to argue that only use of military force will get President Bashir to back down on his support for Arab janjaweed militia raids and aerial attacks against Darfur citizens. Professor Reeves says that US airlift is not likely to lead to a deeper American military commitment.

“There is no practicable no-fly zone, no place to base it. There’s no way to distinguish Antonov cargo aircraft that are dropping bombs and those that are delivering humanitarian aid and supplies. Khartoum is notorious for disguising its aircraft, both fixed wing and helicopters. I think it is simply unreasonable to think that just short of a robust force on the ground that would disable planes that would have attacked civilians, disabling them subsequently, there is no way to enforce a no-fly zone,” he said.

Reeves adds that over five years, the United States has not contributed a single helicopter to the UNAMID effort. He also suggests that a US-imposed naval blockade is unlikely meet approval from China, which has strong maritime dealings with Khartoum, and could raise tensions in the region rather than lower them.

A more immediate issue that could determine the next moves between Washington and Khartoum is whether the 10-count war crimes indictment of President Bashir by the International Criminal Court (ICC) will result in a warrant for his arrest. Eric Reeves says that President Bush needs to address that issue during Tuesday’s meeting with the UN secretary general because Khartoum has shown wanton disregard for the protection and safety of UN personnel operating in the country and has flouted attempts by the international community to bring several war crime suspects to justice.

“Quite explicit threats have been made by various members of the regime and have been reported by the UN, indicating that UN personnel, both peacekeepers and humanitarians, would become targets if the ICC issues an arrest warrant for General Omar al-Bashir, President and field marshal. These threats have gone unrebuked, which is quite extraordinary. Never in the history of the UN has a government threatened UN troops,” he noted.

Although the impending Gaza crisis is expected to occupy a good deal of the US – UN discussions, Professor Reeves says he believes that President Bush and Secretary General Ban in their talks on Darfur will try to address urgent calls for the UN to bring pressure on Khartoum to stop trying to “blackmail” the world body and live up to its international commitments.