Bangladeshi troops will live up to their billing as outstanding peacekeepers and play a significant role in the challenging UN Mission in Sudan to restore peace there, Force Commander of the mission Major General Fazle Elahi Akbar said recently.
In an online interview with The Daily Star, Akbar focused on several aspects of the mission dubbed most challenging as the UN itself for the first time in its over 50 years of peacekeeping history established an Advance Mission in Sudan (UNAMIS) prior to the current mission in line with Security Council Resolution 1590.
He said politically, the parties have signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) encompassing power, wealth, security and resolution of conflict in three contested areas. The issues are very complex, yet time-bound. This makes the implementation of the agreement all the more difficult.
Besides, the country is as big as Europe in size, with almost no infrastructure in place. The 21 years of war have prevented any development from taking place there. The hostile climate associated with excessive rains in the south of the country between May and September and high risk of contacting diseases like malaria and guinea worms make sustenance of troops very costly.
Asked what role Bangladeshi troops preparing to head for Sudan will play in the mission, Akbar said Bangladeshi troops would be deployed in Sector 1 headquartered at Juba, the future capital of the Government of South Sudan. The sector includes three southern states of Sudan having an area bigger than Bangladesh itself. Juba is the heart of the mission and the main stronghold of Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A).
"Their success will be reflected elsewhere in the mission… As Force Commander, I am confident of my country's contingent. Allah willing, Bangladeshi troops will fly their flag high at Juba as they have done in other missions."
On soldiers of how many countries are being deployed and where they will be deployed, the force commander said 10,000 troops from China, Egypt, India, Kenya, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Zambia and Bangladesh will be deployed to provide protection to UN personnel, establishments, humanitarian workers and unprotected civilians under immediate danger.
Bangladeshi troops with helicopter support from Russia will be deployed at Juba, the Kenyans and the Chinese in Sector 2 at Wau, the Indians in Sector 3 at Malakal, the Egyptians in Sector 4 at Kaduguli, the Pakistanis in Sector 5 at Ed Damazin, the Zambians in Sector 6 at Abyei and the Nepalese in Sector 7 at Kassala.
Major General Akbar, however, said the deployment cannot be free of hitches. "I have a mandate of 240 days to complete the deployment of 10,000 troops and already a month and a half have passed by with only the Nepalese contingent of little over 200 being in place.
"In south Sudan we have to make every [chip of the block] and it's no small challenge when the weather is also not friendly. Still, as military planners we have worked out every detail of the deployment with adequate flexibility. In spite of the anticipated difficulties, I am confident that we will be able to meet the 240 days timeline," Akbar added.
Asked when the force will start operations in Sudan and what will be the mission's strategy to restore peace, Akbar said the operations are under way.
"My Force headquarters is gradually getting operational with officers from different countries joining in. I must make mention of Standby High Readiness Brigade (SHIR BRIG) from Nordic countries that has quickly been flown in to make my HQ operational…
In another 45 days, the UN will Inshallah fly its flag in all the sector locations of south Sudan."
On the present situation in Sudan, he said the country is now calm, though there has been some tension when the Security Council Resolutions 1591 and 1593, pertaining to sanctions and trial of those accused for their atrocities in Darfur, were passed. In the south, the activities of the other armed groups (OAGs) are a matter of concern for the mission. The recent gathering at Nairobi for a reconciliatory dialogue of various tribes and armed groups is a positive step.
"However, we can't be complacent and need to follow the developments of South-South dialogue and OAGs Collaborative Committee to ascertain the future security situation in the mission area of operations. My understanding of the security environment is that it's certainly not hazard free."
Asked if the UN has allowed the peacekeepers to use arms to protect themselves when under attack, Akbar said military observers would not have personal arms but be provided with necessary protection as and when deemed necessary. The protection component of the mission has Chapter VII Mandate, which means authority to use force when necessary.
About security measures for the peacekeepers, the Sudan Mission force commander said the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed by both parties invites the UN to monitor the implementation of the agreement. "Therefore, the understanding is that the peacekeepers are their guests and the onus of providing security for the guests lies with the hosts, that is the Government of Sudan and the SPLM/A.
"However, if the OAGs (other armed groups) can't be brought on board then they could pose considerable threat to the life of peacekeepers and hence we have the protection component in the force structure."
On how long the mission will run and what are its future plans, the senior Bangladesh Army officer said the Comprehensive Peace Agreement envisages UN presence for six years and six months.
"On completion of the mandated tasks it is anticipated that the presence of the peacekeepers will be necessary for conducting the plebiscite, which may necessitate a further one year extension of the mission," Major General Akram said.