The United Nations-African Union mission in Darfur is set to end 13 years of peacekeeping in the vast Sudanese region Thursday, even as recent violent clashes leave residents fearful of new conflict.
Fighting erupted in Darfur in 2003, when ethnic minority rebels rose up against the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum, which responded by recruiting and arming notorious Arab-dominated militia known as the Janjaweed.
A total of 300,000 people were killed and 2.5 million displaced, according to the United Nations.
"The last day for UNAMID is tonight at midnight," said UNAMID's team leader in Darfur office Islam Khan. "UNAMID will not have any protection mandate after December 31, 2020."
The mission said the Sudanese government "will take over responsibility for the protection of civilians in the area."
Darfur's bitter conflict has largely subsided in recent years and longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir — wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide and other alleged crimes in the western region — was deposed last year.
But the country's transitional government is fragile, and ethnic and tribal clashes still periodically flare, including clashes last week that left at least 15 people dead and dozens wounded.
'Big trouble' ahead
Darfuris, many of whom remain in teeming camps years after they fled their homes, have held protests in recent weeks against the mission's imminent departure.
"The lives of Darfuri people are at stake, and the United Nations should reconsider its decision," Mohamed Abdelrahman told AFP on Wednesday at Kalma camp in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur.
He is among hundreds who staged a sit-in outside the mission's headquarters at the camp.
Protesters held up banners reading: "We trust U.N. protection for IDPs [internally displaced people]," and "we reject UNAMID's exit."
The U.N. said that the phased withdrawal of the mission's approximately 8,000 armed and civilian personnel will begin in January and be completed inside six months.
Longtime Kalma resident Othman Abulkassem fears the troops' departure signals "big trouble" for Darfuris, leaving them at risk of further violence.
'Great deal' of improvement
UNAMID spokesman Ashraf Eissa sought to allay those fears.
"We understand the concerns of the Darfuri population especially IDPs and other vulnerable groups, but the situation has improved a great deal over the past few years," Eissa told AFP.
"The responsibility now lies with the transitional government and the Sudanese people themselves to enhance peace and security in Darfur."
A U.N. political mission — the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS) — will be installed in Darfur after UNAMID's departure.
It will be tasked with assisting Sudan's transition, peacebuilding, and aid disbursement.
Following last week's clashes, Sudanese authorities said government troops will be deployed to the region to contain any violence.
On Thursday, acting foreign minister Omar Qamareddine said UNAMID "contributed to achieving peace."