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AU to stay on in Darfur

The African Union Peace and Security Council, meeting in New York on the fringes of the United Nations annual general assembly meeting, has agreed to extend the AU force in Darfur until the end of the year. This goes some way towards heading off an impending crisis over the issue, which UN secretary general Kofi Annan and US President George W Bush had put at the top of the agenda.

The AU meeting was also attended by Annan and Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who brusquely answered ”no” when asked if he would accept UN control of the AU force. He reiterated this message both in his defiant speech to the general assembly and in his press conference.

In the meantime, while the UN will in effect pay for and supply the AU mission, Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, the head of the AU Peace and Security Council, confirmed that Sudanese opposition to more direct UN involvement remains firm.

In his opening speech to the general assembly, Annan made Darfur a key issue of UN credibility. The Ghanaian is very proud that the UN last year agreed to the ”responsibility to protect” the concept that humanitarian disasters override traditional conceptions of sovereignty. The Darfur situation presents the first serious challenge to this concept. While both China and Sudan voted to support the concept, they are not currently showing any signs of recognising its significance.

In his speech, Bush described what was happening in Darfur as ”genocide”, and announced the appointment of former USAid administrator Andrew Natsios as his presidential special envoy to Sudan, ”to lead America’s efforts to resolve the outstanding disputes and help bring peace to your land”.

But Bush also pinned a successful strategy in Darfur on UN peacekeeping troops going into the region, warning ”If the Sudanese government does not approve this peacekeeping force quickly, the United Nations must act.”

Following Chinese opposition, the current resolution on Darfur — which was passed on September 1 — was diluted to ”invite” the consent of the Sudanese government to a stronger and more robust 17 000-strong UN peacekeeping force.It would have the ability and the mandate to confront the militias that the UN believes are acting with the approval of the Sudanese government.

Meanwhile, Natsios, described as a ”terrier” by someone who has worked with him, is reportedly more used to dealing with humanitarian issues than political ones, and it remains to be seen just how much clout he will have with either Khartoum or its protectors in Beijing.

However, he will be armed to some extent by the pressure building up on Bush to deliver on Darfur after several years of intermittent rhetoric. Influential Jewish and human rights groups and the powerful evangelical Christian wing of the Republican party have been agitating strongly on the issue, and this may be enough to override the natural caution which has grown in Americans as a result of their current adventure in Iraq.

At the weekend former presidential candidate Bob Dole and Senator John McCain penned a joint call for stronger action, including the establishment of a no-fly zone over parts of Sudan. However, someone has first to convince China to drop its reactionary opposition to UN involvement over the wishes of a member state, as well as its close ties with trading partner Sudan.

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