Home | News    Tuesday 31 August 2004

Nigerian troops set off on AU peace mission to Darfur

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ABUJA, Aug 30 (AFP) — A 155-strong company of Nigerian infantry flew out of Abuja on Monday, heading for the war-torn western Sudanese region of Darfur to join an African Union force protecting ceasefire monitors.

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Nigerian troops upon their arrival at Al-Fasher

"You are going to Sudan purely to assist our brothers and sisters in restoring a hope that is fast diminishing in them," Brigadier General Shekari Biliyok, commander of the Army Headquarters Garrison, told his troops.

"Most importantly you are to protect the African Union observers in the Darfur region of Sudan. I’m optimistic that you will all do the country proud," he added, in remarks cut short by a torrential downpour.

"I want to reiterate here that as an AU protection force in Sudan you must be neutral and respect the host country’s religions and cultural and traditional norms for your acceptability and success," he said.

The infantry company and its support staff were flown out of Abuja airport in two Nigerian Airforce C130 Hercules transport planes.

Their mission has been dubbed "Operation Save Life II". It will initially deploy in the town of el-Fasher in northern Darfur where it will link up with a similar-sized Rwandan contingent.

The joint force will be commanded by a Nigerian on secondment to the African Union, Brigadier General Festus Okonkwo. Last August, Okonkwo commanded the Nigerian force sent to Liberia as part of moves to end its latest civil war.

Its mission is to protect 133 unarmed military observers who are monitoring a shaky ceasefire signed between Darfur’s two main rebel groups and forces loyal to the Khartoum government on April 9 in the Chadian capital N’djamena.

The United Nations estimates that over the last 18 months 1.4 million people have been driven from their homes in Darfur, following attacks on black African minority communities by the government sponsored Janjaweed Arab militia.

Nigeria and senior AU officials have been pressing Sudan to allow the deployment a far bigger force — up to 3,000-strong — with a broader mandate to protect civilians and humanitarian operations.

President Olusegun Obasanjo has asked for and received permission from the Nigerian Senate to deploy two 770-strong battalions, while Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya have also discussed sending reinforcements.

But Khartoum has resisted the idea of a larger deployment, insisting that even if it does eventually give permission for more peacekeepers to be brought in, the force’s mission will be limited to disarming rebel fighters.

"AU troops are welcome in Sudan. But for any increase of the AU force there ... they will seek Sudan’s government permission," the head of the government delegation to AU peace talks, Majzoub al-Khalifa, told journalists Sunday.

"The deployment of 150 troops on Monday is in fulfilment of the July 8 accord between Sudan, the AU and Nigeria for the sending of a total of 307 officers approved as monitors," he said.

"The whole protection (of civilians) in Darfur is primarily the responsibility of Sudan and its armed forces and no other body," he added.

On Monday the United Nations Security Council is due to discuss taking action on the situation in Darfur, one day after a 30-day deadline the body gave the government to disarm the Janjaweed expired.

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