/ 13 August 2008

Darfur rebels ‘are no saints’

The military commander of the United Nations-African Union mission in Darfur on Tuesday urged the world community to put as much pressure on the fragmented insurgency in the war-torn Sudanese region as it does on the Khartoum government.

Martin Luther Agwai, force commander of the joint mission known as Unamid, told reporters that while it is popular to ”bash” the Sudanese government, the reluctance of Darfur rebels to negotiate is often forgotten.

”It takes two to tango,” Agwai noted. ”Sometimes we forget about them [the rebels]. Every day, they say they are fighting for the poor people of Darfur and yet what have they done to show even interest to go to the conference table?

”I am not in any way saying that the [Khartoum] government is clean. But what I am saying is that also the other side cannot be said to be saints. So my appeal is that the pressure should be exerted on both sides.”

He said there are now about 30 different rebel groups involved in the conflict, compared with four when the Darfur peace agreement was signed in 2006.

Agwai called on Darfur insurgents to unite and come to the negotiating table, which he said is the only way to achieve peace.

”They will have to end on a negotiation table because militarily it’s clear no side can win the war in Darfur,” he said. ”But if you have 15, 20 parties wanting to go to conference table to talk, nothing will come out of it.”

The UN estimates that 300 000 people have been killed and more than 2,2-million displaced since the conflict in Darfur, a region the size of France, began in February 2003. Sudan claims 10 000 have died.

Since Unamid began its operations nearly eight months ago, only one-third of the 26 000 authorised troops have been deployed.

Agwai said he hopes the force will reach 80% deployment by December and full deployment by next August.

Unamid has said it needs 18 transport helicopters and six attack helicopters, which are crucial to give the force the required mobility and firepower. But no country has so far have provided them.

On July 8, seven Unamid peacekeepers were killed and 22 injured after they were ambushed by up to 200 heavily armed gunmen. Agwai said lives could have been saved if the mission had had helicopters.

”Unfortunately, we are sent to the boxing ring with our hands tied behind us,” he said, referring more broadly to the lack of adequate equipment and logistical support. ”But we will try kick-boxing if we can’t do hand boxing.”

Agwai, a former chief of defence staff of the Nigerian army, was appointed Unamid force commander in September 2007 after initially turning down the job.

”I was told I was going to command the largest-ever UN peacekeeping force on Earth,” he said. ”Little did I know that it’s going to be on paper and not in reality.” — Sapa-AFP