Darfur peacekeepers too timid
New York - Peacekeepers in Sudan's western Darfur region must be more aggressive in protecting civilians and ensuring humanitarian aid workers have access to needy people, the US envoy to the UN said on Wednesday.
US Ambassador Susan Rice's implicit criticism of Ibrahim Gambari, the civilian head of the UN-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur (Unamid), echoed the views of other members of the UN Security Council, who have complained privatively that Unamid has been too timid.
"We expect Unamid... to be very active and, when necessary, aggressive in fulfilling its mandate to protect civilians," Rice told reporters, adding that Washington has been "frustrated and dismayed by repeated instances of Unamid being denied access and its freedom of movement restricted".
"We have been pressing for months for Unamid to fulfil the letter and spirit of its mandate by ensuring that it is not finding itself negotiating questions of access, but ensuring that (it has the) access it is due," she said after a council meeting on Sudan.
Gambari told the 15-nation council via video link that he informed Unamid's military and police chiefs on January 4 that the force "would adopt a more robust posture and no longer create the impression of seeking permission for movement".
But he acknowledged this approach has not been entirely successful in ensuring that Unamid and humanitarian aid workers in Darfur have access to the millions of displaced people in camps across western Sudan.
As recently as January 22, Sudanese government forces stopped Unamid from entering the Darfur settlement Dar El Salam, he said. Aid workers have also been barred from the area.
"This issue has been raised with the government authorities and we are awaiting their response," Gambari said.
Rice said she welcomed the decision to let Sudanese rebel and government forces know that Unamid would not be asking for their permission when seeking access to areas in Darfur.
But she said the approach needed to be consistently applied.
"This has to be consistent," she said. "It has to be uniform. It's not subject to negotiation."
Rice said that Unamid military troops are "very ably led by the force commander" - General Patrick Nyamvumba of Rwanda.
She did not bestow a similar compliment on Gambari.
"We look to... Gambari to ensure that this robust posture is pursued, is consistent and enables Unamid to do its utmost to protect civilians," she said.
Not robust enough
Diplomats inside the closed-door consultations said that Rice's remarks reflected the views of a number of countries.
"It's certainly true that Unamid has not been as robust as it could have been in ensuring humanitarian access," one Western diplomat said.
Darfur activists and human rights groups have urged the United Nations and United States to step up efforts to secure peace and protect civilians in Darfur, where UN officials estimate that as many as 300 000 people have died since 2003.
Khartoum puts the death toll at 10 000.
Activists and human rights groups say that US and UN officials have focused on north-south Sudan tensions due to the referendum on southern independence that took place earlier this month but now need to pay more attention to Darfur.
In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, US President Barack Obama did not mention Darfur, where the United Nations says the violence is escalating, though he did refer to oil-rich southern Sudan.
In Washington, Sudanese Foreign Minister Ali Karti said the United States should look beyond the Darfur issue and quickly normalize ties with Sudan to build on progress from its successful secession referendum.