UNITED NATIONS – Sudan agreed on Monday to allow more than 3,000 heavily armed U.N. and African peacekeepers in Darfur to reinforce a beleaguered African Union force of 7,000 that has struggled to prevent the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of civilians during the past four years. But U.N. officials said it could be more than six months before foreign troops land in Darfur.
Still, Monday’s agreement marked a critical new phase in a plan to gradually expand the United Nations’ presence and power in Darfur, where government-backed militia stand accused of killing 200,000 to 400,000 civilians and driving more than 2.5 million from their homes. The United Nations ultimately hopes to oversee a joint U.N.-AU force with more than 20,000 soldiers, police and civil servants.
The Bush administration responded with skepticism, noting that Khartoum has backtracked on previous agreements to allow U.N. troops into Darfur. “We’ve been down this path before,” said Alejandro D. Wolff, the acting U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “So we will see if it happens when it happens.” But British diplomats said they are likely to hold off plans to introduce sanctions against Sudan until it has had a chance to show it can carry out the agreement.
U.N. officials say Monday’s announcement would shift attention from Khartoum to the U.N. effort to assemble a peacekeeping force. The top U.N. peacekeeping official, Jean-Marie Guihenno, will meet Thursday with representatives of governments considering sending troops to Darfur. So far, the United Nations has faced resistance from potential contributing countries who are loath to have their troops serve under the African Union. U.N. military planners also are awaiting the arrival of some 1,500 AU troops to Darfur to provide additional security for the new force.
Monday’s announcement marked rare progress in a two-year effort to expand the U.N. presence. “This is a very positive sign,” U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said following a meeting with AU Chairman Alpha Oumar Konare.
Khartoum, meanwhile, continued to voice concern about the role of the United Nations, saying it expected the African Union to lead the mission.