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Deal or no deal?

Sudan's apparent acceptance of U.N. peacekeepers to end the slaughter in Darfur can't be taken at face value.

June 13, 2007

ON TUESDAY, the Sudanese government seemed to give advocates pushing for an end to the ongoing genocide in Darfur everything they have asked for, but nobody was celebrating. That's because activists and ambassadors are all too familiar with Khartoum's disgraceful modus operandi.

The United Nations has been struggling for nearly a year to persuade President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir to allow a hybrid U.N.-African Union force of up to 23,000 peacekeepers into Darfur to protect villagers from roving Arab militias that have led the slaughter of an estimated 200,000 people and the displacement of millions more. The pressure on Bashir has been mounting recently, with an announcement of tightened sanctions from President Bush, threats of sanctions from the United Nations and the election of a new French president who promises to make Darfur a priority.

Khartoum blinked on Tuesday; after two days of meetings in Ethiopia between Sudanese and African Union officials, Sudan agreed to accept the hybrid force. Yet rather than cheer, Darfur watchers mostly reacted with a yawn. Bashir is a master at sidestepping international sanctions by pretending to accede to U.N. demands, then setting up bureaucratic roadblocks. Efforts to reinforce the 7,000 African Union troops already in Darfur have been blocked by refusals to grant visas or "complications" in customs. And when Khartoum runs out of ways to gum up the works, it simply backtracks on its agreements, as it did after initially accepting the full U.N. deployment in November.

The backtracking might already be in progress. One of the prime points of contention over the new peacekeeping force is the nationality of the troops. Sudan has long insisted that only Africans be deployed in Darfur, but there aren't enough African troops available for the mission. On Tuesday, Mutrif Siddig, the head of the Sudanese delegation, seemed to put that issue to rest: "If there are not enough contributions from Africa, then troops can be brought in from elsewhere," he said. Yet a day earlier, Bashir told French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner that only Africans would be accepted. It's not the first time Bashir and his ministers have sent contradictory signals, and the result is always the same: no progress.

Sudan's agreement sounds great, but the international community must keep up the pressure until there are thousands more troops in Darfur -- wearing the U.N.'s blue helmets.

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