As the UN Security Council begins talks next month on renewing its mission in Darfur for another year, Sudan has stepped up pressure for an exit of international peacekeepers from the war-torn region.
About 20,000 troops and policemen from more than 30 countries are in Sudan’s western region of Darfur as part of the African Union-United Nations mission, commonly known as Unamid.
Deployed in 2007, Unamid has a mandate to curb violence in Darfur, a region the size of France. Deadly conflict there since 2003 has left tens of thousands of civilians dead.
Khartoum insists that unrest in Darfur has ended and that a referendum held there in April was a clear example of security returning to the war-scarred region.
“It’s time to say goodbye to the Unamid mission,” Sudan’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Kamal Ismail said last week in Khartoum. “This mission came to protect civilians, but now there is no danger to civilians. There is no conflict in Darfur.”
Violence erupted in Darfur when ethnic minority rebels rose against President Omar al-Bashir, accusing his Arab-dominated government of marginalising the region.
Bashir mounted a brutal counter-insurgency and at least 300,000 people have been killed in the conflict, the UN says. Another 2.5 million have fled their homes.
Khartoum says last month’s referendum turned a page on Darfur’s crisis, with almost 98 per cent of voters opting to maintain the region as five separate states.
The referendum was boycotted by the opposition and criticised internationally.
Darfur was a single region until 1994 when the government split it into three states, and later added another two in 2012, claiming it would make local government more efficient.
Ismail said Khartoum was negotiating through a task force with concerned Unamid groups to reach a time frame for the mission’s exit.
Officials said some Unamid member countries had also expressed a desire to leave or cut troop numbers.
Unamid officials and foreign diplomats journalists spoke to said although clashes between government troops and rebels had declined in recent months, the overall situation in Darfur was still a concern.
“Security in Darfur is still fluid and unpredictable,” a top UN rights expert said after touring the region last month. “There is massive displacement still happening in Darfur,” a foreign diplomat monitoring the situation journalists on condition of anonymity.
Tens of thousands of newly displaced people have taken refuge in North Darfur after an upsurge in fighting this year between the army and rebels in the thickly forested rocky mountain range of Jebel Marra.
Six civilians were killed on May 9 when armed tribesmen attacked the makeshift camp in the town of Sortoni where these people had sought safety.
In April, as many as 20 people were killed in clashes between two rival Arab tribes in East Darfur sparked by livestock thefts, just a day after gunmen torched the residence of the state governor.
Apart from the insurgency, parts of Darfur have been hit by confrontations between myriad ethnic and tribal groups, as well as by rising criminality.
Downplaying the latest violence, Tijani Sissi, who heads the Darfur Regional Authority told journalists that such incidents were expected, given that “the region is coming out of war”.
“Khartoum is very much interested in the Unamid mission leaving,” said the foreign diplomat, “but Unamid can pull out only when UN mentioned benchmarks are achieved.”
These include protection of civilians, facilitating humanitarian aid and successful peace negotiations between Khartoum and rebel groups that have not yet signed the Doha accord for peace in Darfur.
Ismail insisted that Sudan was in a position to maintain peace in Darfur if Unamid left, adding that funds spent on the mission could be diverted for development projects in Darfur or elsewhere in Sudan.