May 25, 2006 (KHARTOUM) — Sudan has agreed to allow an African Union-U.N. assessment mission into the country ahead of a possible deployment of U.N. troops to enforce a peace deal in war-torn Darfur, a U.N. diplomat said on Thursday.
- Lakhdar Brahimi
Speaking after a meeting with Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the U.N.’s Lakhdar Brahimi said: "We agreed that in the coming days the United Nations and the African Union will send a joint assessment mission to Sudan."
The Sudanese government and the main Darfur rebel faction signed their peace agreement on May 5. Two other factions refused to sign saying it did not meet their basic demands.
Prior to the deal, Sudan had rejected a U.N. takeover from ill-equipped African Union (AU) forces in Darfur, but has since said it would negotiate with the world body over the mandate and size of a possible force in the western region.
Brahimi said the mission, including military experts, would start work in Khartoum and then go to Darfur where he said it would assess the immediate needs of the AU force.
It "would also undertake an assessment of all the requirements for a possible transition from the AU to the U.N.", he told reporters in Khartoum.
The United States welcomed Khartoum’s decision as a step along the path to having a U.N. mission there.
"You have to have the assessment team on the ground as a precondition, really, to have an expanded force there and eventually a U.N. peacekeeping force. So, yes, we view this as a positive step," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
Sudan’s agreement missed a deadline of Tuesday night set by the U.N. Security Council to allow the mission to begin work. But given Sudan’s previous outright rejection of a U.N. force, Brahimi said this was a "positive first step".
In New York, U.N. chief spokesman Stephane Dujarric said no date had yet been set for the assessment mission’s departure.
The African Union earlier this month urged the government to cooperate with the United Nations and help the AU transfer its peacekeeping mission in Darfur to U.N. troops.
Sudan’s foreign minister earlier on Thursday said Khartoum had not agreed to allow U.N. troops into Darfur.
"TRAITORS AND SPIES"
Khartoum wanted more discussions involving the United Nations and the African Union before allowing any such move, Foreign Minister Lam Akol said.
"We agreed on a three-way committee to meet and discuss this subject (U.N. transition)," Akol told reporters.
He added the AU would meet the U.N. and the Sudanese government in the future to discuss the troop transition.
One U.N. source said the conflicting message from Akol was because the concession to allow the assessment mission into Sudan was made in Brahimi’s last meeting with Bashir.
The issue of sending U.N. forces into Darfur is contentious in Sudan with the government previously painting pictures of an Iraq-like quagmire attracting Islamic militants in the remote west.
Brahimi said his talks had somewhat allayed the government’s fears that the United Nations was coming to invade Sudan, making Khartoum more likely to agree to the deployment.
"There will most probably be — if the Sudan agrees and I think they will agree — a succession mission led by the United Nations (in Darfur)," Brahimi said.
But not all were convinced. After meeting members of Sudan’s parliament, the assembly erupted in a heated and divisive debate over the U.N. deployment and insults flew as debate turned into an unruly quarrel.
The dispute broke out after Akol gave a statement saying Sudan should "be more flexible" about the prospect of a U.N. deployment to Darfur.
Deputies said one member of the ruling National Congress Party, which dominates government and the assembly, called those in favour of U.N. troops "traitors and spies".
Tens of thousands of people have been killed and more than 2 million herded into miserable camps during three years of rape, murder and looting in Darfur. The United States calls the violence genocide, a charge Khartoum rejects.