UNITED NATIONS — Diplomats reacted with cautious optimism Monday to Sudan's grudging agreement to allow U.N. attack helicopters and 3,000 international peacekeepers into Darfur to protect civilians caught in the conflict there.
"We've been down this path before," U.S. Ambassador Alejandro Wolff said. "So we will see if it happens when it happens."
Sudan's president, Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, had backtracked several times on a November agreement with the U.N. to bolster the under-equipped and overwhelmed African Union peacekeeping force in the country's western region of Darfur. Bashir had contended that the deployment of outside troops without the government's consent amounted to violation of Sudan's sovereignty.
But the threat of Security Council sanctions, combined with diplomatic pressure from the U.N., United States and Sudan's ally China, seemed to prod Bashir to accept the original pact. China's assistant foreign minister visited Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, last week to press the government to accept U.N. peacekeepers, and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte ended a three-day mission there Monday.
More than 200,000 people have died in Darfur and 2 million have been displaced since a rebellion began there in 2003. The government is accused of responding to the uprising by arming Arab militias, known as \o7janjaweed\f7, to attack civilian populations and rival nonArab tribes.
The government had allowed in a small number of advisors, fulfilling the first part of a three-phase plan that would culminate in a combined force of 20,000 peacekeepers from the African Union and U.N. But Bashir had balked at any more troops or equipment.
On Monday, he finally agreed to a "heavy support package," including as many as 3,000 police and military personnel to protect displaced people living in camps from further attacks. Most important, he consented to six attack helicopters that he previously had rejected.
The support package is meant to pave the way for the final phase of the 20,000-strong hybrid force.
In consideration of Sudan's sensitivities to "foreign occupation," the force will come largely from African countries, and African personnel will occupy key positions, such as the force commander, according to the U.N. But the command and control structure will be provided by the United Nations, a requirement for U.N. funding and an important factor for troop recruitment, said the U.N.'s peacekeeping chief, Jean-Marie Guehenno.
"For troop contributors to come forward, they need to be reassured that the command and control arrangements are clear and robust," he said.
Guehenno added that Khartoum's cooperation was crucial to the deployment, because the government controls access to land, water and the infrastructure needed to bring equipment into the country.
The United States and Britain warned that the threat of sanctions would not be off the table until the force was fully deployed.
Negroponte, the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, said after his visit to Sudan that Khartoum faced "intensified international isolation" if it did not help the larger U.N. force to deploy quickly in Darfur.
At the U.N., British Foreign Minister Margaret Beckett said that defying the Security Council was "not a pain-free course." Britain had prepared a sanctions resolution for Sudan, but held off introducing it after Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon requested more time for negotiation.
Ban has made Darfur one of his top-priority issues, and has pushed Bashir to live up to his agreements. In a recent trip to the Middle East, Ban and other leaders of Arab nations pressed Bashir to accept the support package.
The Sudanese president acceded on most points during that meeting, but did not formally accept the six attack helicopters and the command structure until Monday.
Ban said U.N. envoys would continue to work on a peace agreement among Sudan's government and the rebel factions in Darfur, the key to stability in the troubled region.
"The people in Darfur have suffered too much and too long," Ban said. "The international community should do whatever we can do at this time."