UN ‘encouraged’ by Sudan acceptance of joint force

UNITED NATIONS (AFP) — The UN Security Council on Wednesday gave a guarded welcome to Sudanese President Omar Bashir’s readiness to accept the deployment of a joint African Union-UN force in strife-torn Darfur.

The 15-member council met behind closed doors for nearly three hours to hear a briefing from departing United Nations chief Kofi Annan’s envoy Ahmadou Ould Abdallah, who visited Khartoum last week, and to discuss a Bashir letter accepting the deployment.

Annan, who attended the meeting, said council members “are encouraged by the positive tone” of Bashir’s letter.

Council members later adopted a statement welcoming Beshir’s endorsement of the UN three-phase peace plan, including the deployment of a joint force, and underlining “their willingness to continue their close cooperation with the African Union and to continue to give priority to this issue.” “If the letter and the commitments laid out in the letter by the president results in the deployment of the long-awaited ‘hybrid’ force of the United Nations and the African Union, then indeed it will be a welcome development,” US acting ambassador to UN Alejandro Wolff told reporters.

In a letter to Annan released Tuesday, Bashir stated his government’s readiness “to start immediately” implementation of the Darfur peace plan, as agreed at a high-level meeting in Ethiopia last November and at a November 30 meeting of the AU Peace and Security Council in Abuja, Nigeria.

Bashir, who had until now steadfastly rejected any large-scale UN troop deployment in Darfur, endorsed the three-phase plan, including the deployment of the “hybrid” AU-UN peacekeeping force.

“We will have to move ahead and implement it [the plan] very quickly,” said Annan, who is stepping down Sunday after 10 years at the helm of the world body. He stressed the need for the AU and the UN to jointly name “expeditiously” a new UN special representative to Sudan as well as the commander of the joint force in Darfur.

Annan has indicated the United Nations is anticipating the “hybrid” peacekeeping force will have a “minimum strength of 17,300 military personnel, 3,300 civilian police personnel and 16 formed police units.” He said determining the actual size of the force was a “technical,” not a political, issue.

As to Bashir’s request that the Security Council pass a resolution “authorising immediate financial support for peacekeeping in Darfur,” the Ghanaian UN secretary general said this would “take some time” and urged donors in the meantime to continue assisting the cash-strapped, 7,000-strong AU force.

Japan’s UN Ambassador Kenzo Oshima, meanwhile, told reporters that some council members had expressed “some scepticism” in view of Sudan’s past statements and commitments that were not followed.

Stressing that such scepticism was to be expected, Annan said: “It is a challenge for the Sudanese government to prove it means business” this time.

“The proof of this will be action on the ground and whether or not we will actually see a force that can take its place in Darfur to address the humanitarian crisis and help deal with the fighting,” Wolff said.

The UN chief said the first phase of the plan was already under way, with a first batch of UN advisers already on the ground in Darfur.

In his letter, Bashir pledged that his government would “render all required assistance” to facilitate the successful completion of the first two phases of the peace plan, consisting of UN technical and logistical help.

Annan also stressed the need to agree an effective ceasefire between Sudanese government forces and rebels, including those who did not sign the Darfur Peace Agreement  last May.

The United States had given Khartoum until January 1 to accept the UN package or face coercive action to end the conflict in Darfur, which has killed at least 200,000 people and displaced two million in four years.

The conflict erupted in February 2003, when ethnic minority rebels complaining of marginalisation launched an uprising which was fiercely repressed by government troops and allied militias.

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