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Deadly fall

International | As bad as the humanitarian crisis in Darfur is, it may soon become a lot worse

Issue: "Stealth care," Sept. 16, 2006

It's the nature of Sudan's benighted recent existence that when some good arises, greater evil blots it out. These days, the evil usually comes courtesy of the nation's Islamic government. At August's end, just as the United Nations Security Council voted to send peacekeepers to Sudan's genocide-riven western Darfur region, Khartoum's leaders launched a new and massive military offensive there to annihilate rebels and civilians alike.

The offensive violates a peace agreement signed in May, and its timing is defiant mockery of the world's efforts to help Darfuris. In humanitarian terms, Darfur's three-year conflict has long been at crisis point, but the fresh surge in fighting could make it much worse.

Currently, almost 4 million people have been affected by the conflict, and estimates of deaths range from 200,000 to 500,000. But UN humanitarian chief Jan Egeland revealed some more horrifying facts on Aug. 28 when he spoke to the Security Council.

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Civilian attacks by the government and its proxy militias have increased in the last few months, with 50,000 displaced in the last eight weeks alone. Strikes on humanitarian workers are also at their highest ever, with nine killed in July and 25 aid group vehicles hijacked or ambushed in the last two months. Deadly attacks create such danger for aid workers, they now only access less than half of the millions displaced, the lowest figure since fighting began.

"Our entire humanitarian operation in Darfur-the only lifeline for more than 3 million people-is presently at risk," Egeland said in his passionate plea. "We need immediate action on the political front to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe with massive loss of life. Since 2004 we have seen tens of thousands of deaths each year. If the humanitarian operation were to collapse, we could see hundreds of thousands of deaths."

Political action came three days later, when the Security Council passed a resolution to send about 20,000 UN peacekeepers into Darfur to protect civilians. The mission would replace an ailing African Union contingent of 7,000 that has long been outmaneuvered by Sudan's regime.

But as it stands, the resolution is toothless because it requires Khartoum's consent to operate. Consent that Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Taha said would be unlikely. Citing Hezbollah's determination against Israel as a model, he said, "We have options and plans for confronting the international intervention."

Taha and other officials know they have a long fight ahead with Darfur's rebels. Perversely, the groundwork for that fight came in May with the Darfur Peace Agreement, which a faction of only one of three Darfuri rebel groups signed. The faction is part of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), headed by Minni Minnawi. He then became Darfur's representative in Khartoum, and a special assistant to the nation's president. The United States also rewarded him with a July meeting with President Bush.

According to respected Sudan expert Eric Reeves, Minnawi is vastly unpopular in Darfur, not only because locals think he sold out to the regime, but also because he represents just one tribe, the Zaghawa, itself a minority in Darfur. After the peace agreement, 19 of his commanders split off and are now leading the fight against Khartoum in North Darfur. The area is a well-entrenched rebel stronghold.

Reeves explained that Minnawi's SLA is now fighting non-signatory rebel groups alongside Khartoum's forces and its proxy militias, called janjaweed. He expects Khartoum will eventually expand its offensive to the easier areas of West and South Darfur, but "what it's doing right now is taking out what it fears is the [strongest] military opposition."

Still, even North Darfur carries the risk of all-out war, and genocidal tactics Sudan's regime has used all along are spiking: air strikes on villages, coupled with the janjaweed riding in, burning homes, and killing and raping inhabitants.

Meanwhile, the United States seems aware of the latest UN resolution's weakness. U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton has said peacekeeping planning should go ahead despite Khartoum's response: "We're not looking for billboards on the highway into Khartoum accepting the resolution. We would be happy with acquiescence."

Years ago, Khartoum's leaders also blustered before agreeing to a UN force in Sudan's south. But if they stick to their literal and figurative guns in Darfur, the UN-and Darfuris-will lose again.

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