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Dangerous Darfur

Ten peacekeepers are the latest victims. And an environmental crisis may wreak even more havoc.

October 02, 2007

Imagine a Los Angeles police station overrun by a heavily armed and well-organized street gang, and the besieged officers finally being rescued not by their fellow police but by a more powerful gang of thugs. This, in essence, is what happened in the troubled Darfur region of Sudan over the weekend.

The 7,000 African Union troops in Darfur are supposed to be a buffer between civilians and the various armed forces -- government soldiers, militias and rebel groups -- that have burned villages, committed mass rape and killed hundreds of thousands of people. On Saturday, at least 10 peacekeepers were killed in an attack on their camp in the central Darfur town of Haskanita by an unidentified group of militants. It was the deadliest strike on peacekeepers since they arrived in 2004, and more might have died had a contingent of Sudanese soldiers not arrived Sunday morning to run the militants off.

The violence couldn't have come at a worse time. The outnumbered and undersupplied African Union force is due to be replaced early next year by a 26,000-man United Nations mission. Raising troops for the U.N. force has been a challenge, though, and the rising danger level is likely to make it harder. On Monday, the president of Senegal, home of five Darfur peacekeepers who were slain in April, threatened to pull his troops out. Nigeria, another major supplier of peacekeepers for Africa, also seems to be rethinking its role.

The violence in Darfur is escalating in the run-up to a peace summit Oct. 27 between the Sudanese government and various rebel groups. All sides are hoping to consolidate their gains to increase their clout at the bargaining table; the militants in this weekend's attack may have been a rebel faction eager to steal weapons, ammunition and vehicles from the peacekeepers.

Meanwhile, as the fighting escalates, so does an environmental crisis that could cause more death and misery than all the combatants combined. Refugee camps are running out of water, and climate changes are turning an already drought-prone region into a desert. With trees vanishing and arable land left fallow because of the fighting, the ongoing humanitarian crisis is poised to enter an even deadlier phase.

The U.N. force might bring greater security, but that won't be enough to stave off a brutal famine. The international community must be ready to provide far more help after the blue helmets have arrived.

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