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Observers Slam US Response to Darfur

International politicians continue to stream into Khartoum to press the Sudanese government to end the crisis in Darfur, where thousands of people have been killed since 2003. South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, has met with his Sudanese counterpart, Omar al-Bashir, and United States Assistant Secretary of State John Negroponte is also talking with the Sudanese authorities. Al-Bashir is resisting the deployment of a full-scale United Nations peacekeeping force to Darfur and blames rebels for the Darfur atrocities. Human rights groups accuse his government of genocide against black ethnic groups in the region. In the second of a five-part series on the Darfur situation, VOA’s Darren Taylor reports on the recent US response to the crisis.

In November last year, President Bush’s special envoy to Sudan, Andrew Natsios, said that if by January 1 the Sudanese government had not stopped the killing of “innocent civilians” and accepted the deployment of a hybrid United Nations-African Union force, then the US would implement Plan B – a package of economic sanctions against Sudan approved by President Bush.

Natsios acknowledges that so far Khartoum has allowed only 190 UN peacekeepers into Darfur and continues to resist a mass deployment of UN soldiers, because it fears they will begin arresting Sudanese officials for alleged war crimes. The International Criminal Court is preparing indictments asking for the arrests of senior Sudanese government officials on charges that they’re responsible for human rights atrocities in Darfur.

Yet, despite the deadline for the imposition of Plan B having long passed, the US has failed to implement it. Natsios says the delay is largely due to a request by UN Secretary General Ban ki Moon, who says he needs “a few more weeks” of negotiations with the Sudanese government.

“As a courtesy to the secretary general, we’ve (the US) agreed to that delay. But there is a finite limit to it. And if we continue to see stonewalling, then those measures are going to be implemented,” Natsios told a recent Senate hearing.

“It’s up to the president (Bush); it’s his decision to make, but I know where he is on this: He’s as angry as all of us are on this, and wants action.”

But Susan Rice, who was in charge of African affairs for the US government in the 1990s, says all the “backtracking” by the US administration “is not the approach of a government that is serious about stopping a genocide.”

She says repeated delays in taking strong action against Khartoum are worsening the situation in Darfur.

“In effect what we’ve done – we, the United States; we, the international community – is to allow the perpetrators of genocide, the government of Sudan, to dictate the terms of the international community’s response to that genocide,” Rice maintains. She has termed the US response to Darfur “anemic” and “constipated.”

Both Republicans and Democrats have agreed to forceful intervention in Darfur, says Rice, “yet all the US government does is condemn,” while the janjaweed militia – an alleged proxy force of Khartoum – continues to murder Darfuris, to attack targets in Chad and to kill AU peacekeepers, while the government of Sudan denies humanitarian access to Darfur.

“The US government approach and policy has been, over the last three years, one that I have characterized as a pattern of bluster and retreat: They scream loud, they call it genocide, they remonstrate, they bang the table and say this has to stop, they threaten action, and do nothing,” says Rice.

Natsios rejects Rice’s claims.

“The United States government has spent 2.4 billion dollars keeping people (in Darfur) alive over just the last two years. We are by far the largest international donor; I think 65 percent of all the food (aid to Darfur) comes from the United States to feed people; two and a half million people are in displaced camps all over Darfur. There are hundreds of NGOs…and they all have heavy funding from the United States.”

But Alex Meixner, a spokesman for the Save Darfur Coalition, says this effort, while laudable, amounts to “merely keeping people alive so that they can live in terrible conditions in refugee camps,” where they are open to attack at any time by both rebels and government soldiers.

However, Natsios says the US government is doing much more than merely feeding people: It’s facilitating negotiations “between 12 to 14 rebel groups” in Darfur in an effort to get them to sign a comprehensive peace agreement with the al-Bashir administration.

But he agrees that there’s little hope of this happening – unless the rebels unite and begin speaking with one voice to negotiate their demands for a greater political role in Sudan. Natsios also emphasizes that the US has assumed a leading role in pressing Sudan to accept a UN peacekeeping force in addition to the 7,000 AU peacekeepers already in Darfur.

Rice, though, is convinced that these talks are fundamentally flawed: Last year, a UN resolution authorized the deployment of almost 22,000 UN troops to Darfur, and the international community backed it. But instead of imposing the UN soldiers on Sudan, the international community, led by the US, negotiated with the alleged perpetrators in Khartoum for a weaker AU-UN hybrid force - in which UN personnel would take a less active role in peacekeeping, and would mostly provide “logistical support” to the African forces.

This won’t work, says Rice.

“There aren’t the African forces there; there isn’t the excess capacity (in Africa) to get from the 7,000 level to the 22,000 level. So we basically created a fiction – this hybrid. And even so, a far lesser force - the Sudanese government continues to thwart and reject. And we do nothing. This is indeed a disgrace – not only for the United States, but for the entire international community.”

Natsios agrees with Rice that the AU does not have the capacity to boost its presence in Darfur, but says the government of Sudan continues to resist the deployment of peacekeepers from Europe and elsewhere and to insist that the proposed peacekeeping force be staffed mainly with Africans. He also says the AU forces aren’t sufficiently trained for such a large operation.

For Rice, world opinion demands immediate stronger action against Khartoum, not more negotiations.

“The fact is we have a choice,” she says. “We can play this game of bluster and retreat, and negotiate, and do-see-do in perpetuity – or we can stop the killing, and try to prevent the spill-over from magnifying.”

Natsios agrees that there’s “chaos” in Darfur at the moment, and that the conflict that the media has often described in terms of ethnicity – an Arab versus African war – has now morphed into something more complicated: Arabs are now attacking Arabs, raping and killing one another; and the situation is deteriorating rapidly - not improving, as the Sudanese government frequently insists.

One of the major impediments to peace in Darfur, says Natsios, is Khartoum’s failure to implement some of the agreements it made in 2004 with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, which ended more than two decades of war in southern Sudan.

The rebels in Darfur have taken note of this, according to Natsios, and as a result are unwilling to negotiate with a government that does not honor its agreements.