Top EU soldier says Darfur no-fly zone unworkable

BRUSSELS (Reuters) — A US-backed proposal to stop Sudanese military aircraft flying over the war-ravaged western region of Darfur is technically unworkable, a top European Union soldier said on Tuesday.

President George W. Bush raised the prospect last month and Britain wants the UN Security Council to impose a no-fly zone on Sudan as part of sanctions including broadening an arms ban.

But General Henri Bentegeat, the Frenchman who heads the EU’s top military body, said the size of the 500,000-sq.km territory made such a plan unfeasible.

“A no-fly zone is technically impossible. Darfur is around the same size as France,” Bentegeat, who heads the EU Military Committee on which the bloc’s 27 member states coordinate defence policy, told Reuters in an interview.

“You would need at least 60 combat aircraft to enforce it correctly. And there would be the question of distinguishing between helicopters,” Bentegeat warned of possibly lethal confusion between Sudanese, UN and other aircraft.

He said there was no alternative to maintaining pressure on Khartoum to let international troops join a 7,000-strong African Union force that has so far failed to quell the violence.

“Darfur has descended into chaos,” said Bentegeat, whose postings in the French army included Senegal and Djibouti. “The only viable solution is the deployment of a very large force that would throw a security net around the region.” The United Nations says 200,000 people have been killed and more than two million displaced in the Darfur conflict, which flared in 2003 when rebels took up arms against the government.

Sudan has agreed to accept just 3,500 UN personnel on top of the AU force but the full peace plan calls for a “hybrid force” of over 20,000.

Gaza role?

Bentegeat’s comments reflect international exasperation at President Omar  Bashir’s resistance to the plan. China, with major oil interests in Sudan, has used its veto in the UN Security Council to resist deployment of foreign peacekeepers.

The stalemate has hamstrung Western efforts to ease the conflict, with the European Union and NATO only providing basic support to the AU mission ranging from cash to logistical help.

Bentegeat took over the EU Military Committee last year and oversaw the launch this year of EU “battle groups”, 1,500-strong multinational battalions that can deploy at a few days’ notice.

He said there were no current plans to despatch a battle group to any hot spot around the world and that a number of European nations complained their armies were stretched by missions from Iraq and Afghanistan to Lebanon and the Balkans.

“Given the overstretch, it would have to be a real emergency situation to send one,” he said.

Bentegeat said there had been no discussion in Brussels of the possibility of sending international peacekeepers to Gaza after new signs from Israel that it could accept such a force under certain conditions.

However, he said the keenness of European nations last year to provide troops for an expanded UN force in southern Lebanon after its war with Israel showed European capitals were ready in principle to consider joining any future force.

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