Aid groups warn Darfur U.N. force set to fail

( Reuters ) - Aid groups urged the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday to set a 30-day deadline for Sudan to stop obstructing the planned January 1 deployment of U.N.-African Union peacekeepers to Darfur or face sanctions.

"The new hybrid peacekeeping force for Darfur is being set up to fail," said a statement from 35 aid groups.

U.N. officials and Western countries have said for months Sudan's refusal to approve some non-African units for the force, as well as technical and bureaucratic obstacles, are holding up preparations for the deployment.

On January 1, the joint U.N.-African Union force, UNAMID, is due to take over from an AU force of under 7,000, which has been unable to stop a conflict that has raged for 4-1/2 years.

Sudan has yet to approve units from Thailand and Nepal, as well as an engineering unit from Nordic countries, and Western countries say it has been dragging its feet on technical issues such as land, flight authorizations and operating terms.

"The United Nations Security Council should issue a strong presidential statement condemning the government of Sudan for its obstruction of the UNAMID deployment," said a report by 35 groups including New York-based Human Rights Watch.

It said the council should demand explicit action in areas where Sudan was blocking deployment.

"If the government of Sudan fails to take those actions within 30 days, the council should immediately impose targeted sanctions on key government officials," it said.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has repeatedly accused Sudan of foot-dragging and raised the prospect of sanctions.

But Sudan has a strong ally in China, a veto-holding permanent member of the Security Council, and also generally finds support from council members South Africa and Qatar.

The failure to find any country willing to provide the force with 18 transport helicopters and 6 attack helicopters is another major obstacle to full deployment. Officials say the helicopters are vital for the force to operate in an area the size of France.

Diplomats say some countries are reluctant to contribute helicopters partly because they are unhappy about the new force's command and control arrangements.

A U.N. Security Council resolution passed in July provides for up to 26,000 soldiers and police. But officials say after the handover of control in January, the force will still number only around 7,000 soldiers and 2,000 police. The United Nations hopes to raise the total to 15,000 by the end of March.

U.N. peacekeeping department spokesman Nick Birnback said the numbers were less important than the politics.

"What's at issue is Khartoum's fundamental acceptance of the force," he said. "We're still lacking critical capabilities and assets, but without progress on the political side, these operational issues will not really matter."

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