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SUDAN: Interview with Niels Scott, head of the UNMIS regional office for Darfur

2/15/2006 5:15pm

KHARTOUM, Negotiations at the Darfur peace talks in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, seem to be making some headway, despite escalating violence across the western Sudanese region in recent weeks. IRIN spoke with Niels Scott, head of the regional office for Darfur of the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), in Khartoum, about the situation. Below are excerpts of the interview. Question: What is your assessment of the current security situation in Darfur?

Answer: The security situation in Darfur is still the result of violations of the ceasefire agreement by all parties to the agreement, and aggressions committed by militia. That hasn't changed a great deal. If anything, it has got slightly worse. The situation is compounded by tense currents on the Chad-Sudan border. We've also noted the number of aggressions against humanitarian organisations. We've got - almost on a daily basis - reports of convoys being interfered with, people abducted, sometimes harassed, vehicles being detained, stolen, looted. We've got this huge humanitarian operation that's going on. But in places like the north of West Darfur, in Jebel Moon and Kulbus for example, the gaps in the distribution of food are starting to become a little bit too long. It's too difficult to ensure a regular distribution. And that is something that really might become serious if it's not addressed. Q: What is your understanding of the size, the motivation, the support and the threat of the Chadian rebels in West Darfur?

A: It seems that almost monthly if not weekly more actors get involved in the situation. From our point of view, the importance of having a framework agreement in the context of the Abuja negotiations is really, now, critical. Whether it is a human rights aspect, a protection aspect, a humanitarian aspect, a question of livelihoods, it is incumbent that we have an agreement quickly. Q: Could you shed a little more light on the current volatility in West Darfur? A: There was a time when we were very concerned about the degree of absence of government in West Darfur. That seems to have been addressed, and the appointed officials seem to be behind their desks, governing. There is a volatility there, and it is causing huge problems in terms of humanitarian assistance and observing protection issues. I think it is kind of a microcosm, West Darfur, of what we hope will not happen everywhere else in Darfur - where there is a number of actors on various levels, for various motivations, who are engaged and are difficult to control.

Q: There have been some very serious incidents recently around Shaeria and Mershing and Menawashi in the northern region of South Darfur. What is going on in that area? A: There is Menawashi, there is Mershing, there is Gereida - which is obviously further south - there is Shaeria. This is something that has been going on for many months. In Shaeria, I was first there in November last year and already the situation was tense. There are very strong feelings between various tribes. As you are aware, the Berti are in the government of Shaeria. I think there is a situation where you've got militia who are acting with impunity. They're pressurising the civilian population, who in turn are calling upon armed movements in order to get protection, which is bringing the tribal and the military element together. It is extremely violent. The same in Gereida - it's an extremely serious situation - and the same in Mershing. These are the things that were already brewing six months ago.

Q: How do local rebel commanders in the field see the Abuja negotiations? How much do they feel bound by it and how hopeful are they that something will come out of it? A: They are engaged in a standoff with their adversaries, and they would like to see a result. I had the same question, which I put to a number of local commanders because I wanted also to have a sense for how closely they felt involved in what is happening in Abuja. They follow it; they are interested. I wouldn't say they are particularly thrilled by the delays that are occurring in the negotiations. The level of detail that is being discussed is unnecessary at this time, in their opinion. I asked them very directly whether they would like to be in the field in army fatigues or to be at home, and they said, we are tired of this. I think there is a certain amount of pressure on their negotiating team to find some sort of solution to unblock the situation, which appears to be happening, so maybe their voice is being heard. Q: How does the discussion about the possible transition from African Union [AU] peacekeeping forces to United Nations forces affect local attitudes? Does it give a perverse incentive to some of the rebel groups to further escalate violence, to consolidate their positions to make sure this transition will take place?

A: I haven't had that impression. If we look back over the last 18 months, where there have been [lots] of violence, I don't see the local Arab commanders seeking to engage deeply at the moment. I think everybody would agree that they're actually exercising a high level of restraint. We're not seeing direct confrontations. As far as the people in the field are concerned, the belligerents who are on the ground and who potentially are the ones that will restart the fighting which - again - will make the negotiations difficult, I think they are looking for a solution which [will] lead to stabilisation. Some of them have expressed dissatisfaction with the present arrangements. They would like to see some kind of security arrangements whereby if they show restraint, they're going to have some kind of reassurance that other people will show restraint as well. The feeling they have expressed over a period of months is that they are concerned about holding back while other parties won't do it, and therefore they feel they're being taken advantage of. That is their version, their perception, but is definitely one of these things that concern them.

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