U.N. council members reject pullout from Darfur
UNITED NATIONS — Key U.N. Security Council members rejected Sudanese pressure to withdraw thousands of peacekeepers from Darfur Tuesday, even as the U.S. reported a wave of government air strikes near a rebel-held town.
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said the United States is “gravely concerned by reports of intense aerial bombardment” — at least 28 bombing raids on Tuesday morning alone — by Sudanese forces on the outskirts of the town in southern Darfur.
Sudan’s government on Sunday asked the U.N.-African Union peacekeepers, on a mission known as UNAMID, to leave the town before bombing began, but U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said they won’t go.
While Sudan has regularly challenged the U.N.’s fragile presence in the country, the request was the first of its kind from Sudan, U.N. officials said. U.N. and Sudanese officials meet in Khartoum to discuss the request, a spokeswoman for the U.N. mission has said.
Akuei Bona Malwal, Sudan’s ambassador to the African Union, said the Sudanese government was requesting — not demanding — that peacekeepers leave.
Thousands of civilians sought refuge with the peacekeeping mission after the aerial bombing raids began Monday.
Ban has urged “maximum restraint” on Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and asked the Justice and Equality Movement rebels to withdraw from the town to protect civilians displaced by the six-year civil war in Sudan’s arid western region.
But Rice said Sudanese forces were bombing the town of Muhajeria, despite the withdrawal of rebel forces to more than 30 miles away. The rebels seized the town in mid-January.
“The bombardment continues and the government of Sudan has prevented UNAMID personnel from moving into the area to investigate, impeding the freedom of movement of these personnel which is a violation of the status of forces agreement between UNAMID and the government,” Rice said.
Rebels in Darfur took up arms in 2003. So far, 300,000 people have died and 2.7 million have been displaced. Sudanese forces often have bombed rebel areas in Darfur contrary to the council’s ban on military flights in the region.
Japanese Ambassador Yukio Takasu, who took over the presidency of the Security Council this month, said the situation in Darfur was extremely volatile. He said the council’s prevailing sentiment was to strongly oppose any effort by Sudan to impose limitations on peacekeepers’ movements.
“Unimpeded, free movement of personnel is guaranteed by the government of Sudan,” Takasu said after a closed-door session to decide on the council’s February agenda. “So the council should insist on that.”
He said there was a lot of speculation in the council about whether the recent rise in violence in Darfur was tied to a decision expected soon from the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, on whether to issue an arrest warrant for Sudan’s president for suspected war crimes in Darfur.
Several U.N. officials and diplomats have privately predicted that the court will agree to issue a warrant this month.
U.N. officials are deeply worried about reprisals, including Bashir attempting to order UNAMID out of Sudan.
U.N. and AU officials hope the peacekeeping force, stymied by lack of helicopters and other equipment, can reach its full capacity of 26,000 soldiers and police by June.
Among the council’s pressing issues this month, Takasu said, are the conflicts in Darfur and Somalia and whether to extend U.N. peacekeeping missions in Georgia and East Timor. Takasu presented small Seiko clocks as gifts to each of the council members, encouraging them to be punctual.