By Nureldin Abdallah
Friday, November 18, 2005
MUHAJIRIYA, Sudan (Reuters) - Armored vehicles began arriving in Sudan's Darfur region on Friday, a move officials said would significantly improve the capabilities of African Union forces trying to cope with spiraling violence.
The armored personnel carriers (APCs) landed in Darfur's main town of el-Fasher as infighting amongst rebels and Arab militias in the past week claimed up to 85 lives and forced 10,000 people from their homes in many parts of the vast region the size of France, a U.N. report said.
"The APCs will give them authority, confidence, punch and significant flexibility," the Canadian prime minister's special envoy for Africa, Bob Fowler, told Reuters. Canada paid for the 105 vehicles, which finally arrived after months of diplomatic wrangling with Khartoum.
"It is all about protecting a delicate peace and allowing this mission to do its job in keeping stability in this country," he said. The APCs were not equipped with machineguns as they arrived.
A 6,000-strong AU force is monitoring a shaky truce in the desert region. But the force has regularly come under fire and suffered its first casualties in an armed ambush last month.
Troops ran out of ammunition and were forced to retreat leaving behind two soldiers, who were later apparently executed.
The attack raised questions about the force's ability to defend itself and millions of civilians, who have borne the brunt of the violence, called genocide by the United States.
AU officials say the APCs will be a deterrent to any force contemplating an attack on their soldiers and would provide valuable protection for the troops, who currently travel on open benches in the back of jeeps, exposing them as one soldier said as "sitting ducks."
A U.N. report said 62 members of the smaller Darfur rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), died in the past week during attacks on villages in South Darfur.
The U.N. report did not say who JEM forces were fighting but the region is an area where JEM and the other main Darfur rebel group, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), have clashed before.
The report also said 23 members of Arab militias died in clashes over cattle between militia members in West Darfur.
The deteriorating situation in Darfur comes amid political infighting within the SLA as rebel commanders jockey for position. An SLA congress elected a new president earlier this month, a move not recognized by all factions, commanders and the United Nations said.
The rebel divisions have delayed AU-mediated peace talks in the Nigerian capital Abuja, due to begin on Monday. An AU statement said the talks planned to go ahead on November 21, but sources told Reuters it would be impossible to hold talks in the next week because of the uncertainty over the rebel leadership.
The head of the AU mission, Baba Gana Kingibe, flew to Muhajiriya in South Darfur to meet with elected SLA leader Minni Arcua Minnawi on Friday. Minnawi told reporters former President Abdel Wahed Mohamed el-Nur could attend Abuja but not as head of the delegation.