/ 2 February 2009

UN scrambles to shield civilians in Darfur town

United Nations peacekeepers held urgent talks with the Sudanese government on Monday on how to protect about 5 000 civilians holed up in a UN base in a town that has become a key battleground between the army and Darfur rebels.

The head of the UN-African Union Mission in Darfur (Unamid), Rodolphe Adada, held talks with Sudanese defence, Foreign Ministry and intelligence officials on ”practical ways of securing the protection of the civilians”, the mission’s spokesperson Noureddine Mezni told AFP.

The talks follow a warning to Unamid from the Sudanese government on Sunday to withdraw its 190 peacekeepers from the town of Muhajaria ahead of an offensive to recapture it from rebels of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).

Adada has also been in touch with representatives of the JEM, which seized the town last month from former rebels now allied with the government, and plans to meet the group’s leader Khalil Ibrahim in his rear-base in neighbouring eastern Chad, Mezni said.

The spokesperson said that what Unamid had received from Khartoum was ”not an ultimatum, but a warning”.

”They want to drive the JEM out of Muhajaria and they don’t want Unamid to be caught in the crossfire between the two sides.”

But Mezni insisted that the Unamid peacekeepers needed to be there to look after the 5 000 civilians who sought refuge in their base from last month’s fighting in which the rebels seized the town.

”We are there to protect the civilians. Imagine what might happen if Unamid pulled out leaving thousands of people to their own devices.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon delivered a similar message at a media conference in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia on Monday.

”Dramatic events have unfolded at the city of Muhajaria,” Ban said.

”UN peacekeeping forces in the city are there to protect the 15 000 internally displaced persons, as per our mandate. We will continue.”

Last month’s fighting in Muhajaria left 17 people dead and 27 wounded, mostly civilians, a Unamid official said.

”It was the most violent fighting since the signing of the Darfur peace deal” in mid-2006, another Unamid official said, although raids on the town of Haskanita in autumn 2007 left more victims.

In all, about 300 000 people have died in Darfur since ethnic minority rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum six years ago, according to the UN.

Khartoum says 10 000 people have died.

Just one rebel faction signed the 2006 peace deal with the government, and the rebel movements have since further fragmented defying international efforts to broker a ceasefire and stoking further bloodshed. — Sapa-AFP