Sudan leader backs Darfur plan but concerns remain

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) — Sudanese President Omar  Bashir has told the United Nations he endorses a plan for a joint African Union-UN peacekeeping force to help quell violence and protect civilians in Darfur.

But in a December 23 letter to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan made public on Tuesday, Bashir also said the plan should be carried out through a special panel on which Khartoum has a seat, a move diplomats said would effectively give Sudan veto power over all aspects of its implementation.

Diplomats who have seen the letter, distributed to members of the 15-nation UN Security Council on Tuesday, said that while Bashir’s message contained positive elements, it was not clear whether it represented a real step forward in putting the plan into effect.

To help sort out the situation, the council is expected to invite Annan to brief it on the letter later this week, UN officials said.

The question of whether Bashir was now standing aside and eliminating obstacles to the plan, or clinging to ambiguities in an effort to further stall its implementation, was crucial as Annan is preparing to leave office this Sunday to make way for new Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of South Korea.

Bashir was replying to a letter from Annan delivered last week in which the secretary general tried to pin down the Sudanese leader by asking him to give his formal consent for what Annan has been describing as a hybrid AU-UN force of at least 22,600 troops and police.

Bashir has flatly opposed a purely UN force, calling it a move to recolonise his vast East African nation. He has made a series of contradictory statements on a hybrid force. At least 200,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million driven from their homes and into squalid camps during three years of fighting in Darfur between rebel groups, government troops and government-backed militias.

Under the hybrid plan, which has already been endorsed by the African Union, the force would be under AU command.

But the commander would report to a special envoy who would be jointly appointed by the African Union and the United Nations and who would be in charge of the overall political direction of the international mission in Darfur. In his letter, Bashir said he agreed that the AU-UN plan, which leaves the size and composition of the force up to the AU and the United Nations, would “constitute a viable framework for peaceful settlement to the conflict in Darfur.” He also said an existing agreement between the United Nations and Khartoum on the legal status of an existing UN mission in southern Sudan “would be applicable” to the situation in Darfur as well.

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