The commander of the joint U.N.-African Union force in Sudan's conflict-torn Darfur region says his troops are critically short of helicopters.  From United Nation's headquarters in New York, VOA's Margaret Besheer reports the commander warns the lack of the aircraft is slowing the full deployment of the peacekeeping mission.  

General Martin Luther Agwai is the force commander of the U.N.-A.U. mission in Darfur known as UNAMID. He says he thinks the troubled mission can still succeed, but it urgently needs adequate troops and equipment.

"Unfortunately, we were sent to the boxing ring with our hands tied behind us," said General Agwai.

He says the force, which the Security Council has authorized to grow to 26,000 police and soldiers, is stalled at less than 10,000. It lacks two heavy logistic elements, one transport company, one civilian aircraft and most critically, six attack helicopters and 18 utility and transport helicopters.

"Nobody has made an offer of that," he said. "And in a place like Darfur, where there are no roads, you need flexibility. And helicopters are really another value added to the operation."

Ethiopia has volunteered seven helicopters, but the proposal is still under review. So far they are the only country to make a viable bid to provide the needed aircraft.

A recent report from an aviation expert, that was widely accepted as authoritative, said more than 20 countries have surplus aircraft that could meet the needs of the Darfur peacekeepers. Asked why he thought no one was offering, General Agwai pointed to the report's assertion that some countries simply do not want to get drawn into the Darfur crisis.

Darfur is a dangerous place. Just last month, seven U.N. peacekeepers were killed when their convoy was ambushed in an area under Sudanese government control.  Also last month, the Chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court at The Hague charged Sudan's president with genocide and war crimes for the atrocities committed in Darfur, where as many as 300-thousand people have died over the last five years.  The ICC case has raised concerns among some U.N. officials that there could be retaliatory attacks against peacekeepers.

But peacekeepers are continuing to trickle into Darfur. Most recently, 126 troops from Egypt, as well as a unit of Chinese engineers arrived in the region. U.N. peacekeeping officials have repeatedly said their goal is to deploy 80 percent of the 26,000 peacekeepers by the end of this year. Agwai, who commanded Nigeria's armed forces before taking up his mission in Darfur a year ago, says he still thinks that goal is possible.

"I sincerely hope that we will hit that target," said Agwai. "If we don't, we may be short of it a little bit. But we are working day and night - both at the mission and with the headquarters and with Friends of UNAMID - to make sure we hit that 80 percent by December this year."

Agwai said if that goal is reached on schedule, a full deployment of UNAMID could happen by August 2009.