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NATO forces placed on alert for help in Darfur

Ewen MacAskill

African Union asks for logistical support to help keep peace in Sudan's disturbed region

LONDON: NATO ordered its planners on Wednesday to begin urgently drawing up proposals to help out in Darfur, where hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and more than a million displaced.

NATO's 26 ambassadors, meeting in Brussels, approved a request for help from the African Union, the pan-continental organisation, which has 2,600 troops on the ground.

This is the African Union's first peace operation and it is struggling, partly because of the scale of the crisis, partly because of a lack of experience, but mainly because of a lack of logistical support.

The A.U., until now, has been reluctant to admit it is unable to cope, or to ask NATO for assistance.

The crisis in Darfur began two years ago when the Sudanese Government, engaged in a conflict with rebels, used a combination of its own military and militia groups to attack isolated villages.

The U.N. assistant secretary-general, Hedi Annabi, briefed the U.N. earlier this month that attacks on civilians, rape, kidnapping and banditry were on the increase. He said the attacks had been carried out by the militia.

International military involvement has grown rapidly from 12 months ago, when there were no international forces on the ground. In June last year, the A.U. had 10 monitors on the ground.

Soon afterwards, the A.U. put in 300 troops to protect them. The force has grown to 2,409 troops and 244 policemen. This is expected to rise to a total of about 3,200 by the summer, increasing to 7,700 in September.

A NATO official said that the organisation would not be putting troops on the ground and it should not be seen as comparable to NATO involvement in Kosovo and Afghanistan.

The priority for NATO in Darfur is to provide a team to help the A.U. with planning, co-ordination, communications and training.

Among the A.U.'s requirements are helicopters, a necessity for operating in an area where roads are frequently impassable and where fast deployment is imperative in a conflict dealing with marauding militia bands.

A Canadian Government representative offered at the NATO meeting to provide helicopters, and a British official said that if the U.S. also offered to help with the airlift, that should be taken up.

A British official expressed hope that the A.U. force could be expanded further, to about 12,000.

In addition, the United Nations is deploying 10,000 peacekeepers elsewhere in Sudan to maintain a ceasefire in the north-south civil war. The official suggested that eventually the two forces could merge into one U.N. peacekeeping force.

If it had been suggested at the outset that a U.N. peacekeeping force of that size, supported by NATO, would be put in place, the Sudanese Government would have blocked it, the official said.

The A.U. presence is intended to reduce the violence and create a safe enough environment to encourage the million-plus people who have fled to camps to return home.

The A.U. force is too small to cope with an area the size of France, and villages continue to be burned and refugees besieged in their camps. The militias have also become more difficult to deal with.

The request for NATO help was made by the A.U. President, Alpha Oumar Konare.

``It is important we get the security situation under control very quickly,'' he said in Brussels. —

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

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