Thousands of Sudanese protest against UN force

KHARTOUM (Reuters) — Shouting “Down, Down USA,” thousands of Sudanese protested in Khartoum on Wednesday against any deployment of UN troops to the western Darfur region.”Get out all foreigners, we don’t want you here,” shouted 21-year-old student Zeinab Kheir Al Sir.

“Darfur will be the grave of the conquerors,” said banners carried by the demonstrators.

African foreign ministers are due to decide on Friday whether to ask the United Nations to take over control of their 7,000-strong mission currently monitoring a shaky ceasefire in Darfur. The AU lacks both funds and equipment.

Ahead of their meeting, senior Western officials held talks in Brussels with Sudanese leaders aiming to persuade them to agree to the deployment of a robust UN mission in Darfur.

But following a government-led media campaign against UN intervention, nationalist sentiment in Sudan is running high.

The pro-government Al Intibaha newspaper has announced the formation of two new Islamist movements threatening to target foreign interests in Darfur, called the Darfur Jihad Organisation and the Blood Brigades.

And on Wednesday the defence minister rallied troops against intervention at a military demonstration in Khartoum.

“Jihad, victory, martyrdom,” the soldiers chanted. “Our martyrs are in heaven, and we are ready,” said Defence Minister Abdel Rahim Mohammed Hussein.

Hussein last week threw out all foreign press from a news conference, accusing them of fabricating the Darfur conflict, which Washington calls genocide.

Khartoum denies genocide in the arid west, but tens of thousands have been killed and two million herded into camps by three years of rape, looting and killing. The International Criminal Court is investigating alleged war crimes there.

Among the crowd of demonstrators, one brave woman quietly said she supported intervention in her place of origin, Darfur.

“I don’t think the government can solve the problem, nor can the African Union,” student Maha Mekki said. “I want America to come in,” she said, before being drowned out by shouts of “no, no to foreigners.”

Change of command?

The United Nations is currently deploying about 10,000 troops to Sudan’s south to oversee a separate peace deal signed last year to end more than two decades of civil war there.

But the government and opposition parties have all said they do not want this UN force to be extended to Darfur as well.

“In the south they are there to help, but in Darfur this will just be a front for Israel and America to come in to get our oil,” said demonstrator Amal Jaafar.

Sudan produces roughly 330,000 barrels per day of crude, mostly from fields in the south.

UN sources say any UN force in Sudan’s west is likely to keep the same AU forces on the ground, but change the command over to a UN peacekeeping mission.

In Brussels, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana met Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Mohammed Taha to step up pressure on Sudan to accept UN peacekeepers.

“Taha is a key player in the Sudanese government … We hope he hears the message,” an EU official said.

US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, due to join the talks during the day, said he would push for a UN mission.

“We believe that, to the maximum extent possible, the AU forces in Darfur should be incorporated into the UN mission in which Africans should play a key leadership role,” Zoellick said in a statement before leaving Washington.

At the Security Council’s request, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has begun planning for a shift from an AU force to a UN mission. UN officials have sought NATO and EU support.

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