"This is more than a semantic change," he charged. "Natsios' claim represents a calculated attempt to re-chacracterize the crisis, undermine its urgency, and obviate the need for new U.S. action to address."
State Department officials told IPS Monday that U.S. policy regarding Darfur has not changed, but Natsios' statement has nonetheless fueled activists' frustration with the administration, particularly in the absence of any follow-through on U.S. threats late last year that it would take harsh action, referred to as "Plan B," against Khartoum if it did not permit the deployment of a large international peacekeeping force in Darfur.
"I think people are intensely frustrated," said Eric Reeves, a leading Darfur activist based at Smith College in Massachusetts. "The fact is that the international community, including the United States, simply has refused to do what's necessary to compel Khartoum to accept a (peacekeeping) force of the kind authorized by the UN Security Council."
"Even Plan B, as it's been reported, amounts to a naked bluff," he added, suggesting that the sanctions being considered by Washington, even if applied, would amount to no more than a "short-term minor to medium-sized inconvenience for the regime."
The Security Council approved a resolution last Aug 31 that authorized a UN peacekeeping operation of up to 22,500 troops and police for Darfur, Sudan's westernmost region, where between 200,000 and 500,000 people -- mostly members of three African ethnic groups -- have died and more than two million more uprooted from their homes over the past nearly four years.
Most of the violence over that time has been perpetrated by government forces or government-backed Arab militias, called Janjaweed, against the African groups, although, over the past year, a rebel coalition, armed in part by neighboring Chad and Eritrea, has become more aggressive, particularly in northern Darfur.
Since the end of 2004, the African Union (AU) has deployed a small peacekeeping force to monitor a ceasefire that quickly fell apart. The poorly armed and equipped force, whose numbers have never exceeded 7,000, has been unable to contain the violence in the France-sized region.
After the breakdown last summer of a U.S.- and UN-backed peace accord between the government and one rebel faction last May, the Bush administration and other western governments pushed through UN Security Council Resolution 1706 to create a "hybrid" AU-UN force of up to 21,500 personnel with a stronger mandate to protect civilians.
While high-level missions by senior UN and western diplomats elicited pledges of cooperation from Bashir and other senior Sudanese officials, Khartoum has so far refused to authorise deployment of the new force, even while security conditions throughout Darfur continued to deteriorate, and the violence spread into neighboring Chad, where more than 200,000 Darfureans had gained refuge.
In late November, Natsios, Bush's former chief of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) who was appointed special envoy for Darfur under pressure from the activist groups, announced that Washington was prepared to impose additional sanctions as part of an unspecified "Plan B" if Khartoum did not agree to the peacekeeping deployment by Jan. 1. "On January 1st, either we see a change or we go to Plan B," he warned.
The administration has never officially spelled out what measures Plan B included, although in December, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose government has worked closely with Washington on Darfur, hinted that they might include the imposition of a "no-fly zone" over parts of Darfur to prevent Sudanese aircraft from attacking villages, as well as multilateral economic sanctions.
Jan. 1 passed without any announcement, however, although U.S. officials have disclosed that one part of Plan B -- namely, the stationing of four U.S. Army colonels for a period last month along the Sudan-Chad border as a signal of U.S. disapproval of Janjaweed raids into Chad -- had been implemented.
The Washington Post disclosed last week that Bush had approved another part of the plan last month. If Khartoum continues to resist UNSCR 1706, according to the Post, the U.S. Treasury will block transfers by U.S. commercial banks of oil payments to the government of Sudan. Washington has applied similar sanctions with some success against third-country banks doing business with North Korea and Iran.
With the Jan. 1 deadline long passed, what will be the trigger for these and other sanctions to be applied remains unclear, however.
It appears that Washington was hoping that last week's visit to Khartoum by Chinese President Hu Jintao would yield some progress. China, Sudan's biggest oil export market by far, abstained on UNSCR 1706 but has reportedly pressed Khartoum on accepting the UN mission.
According to press accounts, however, Hu did not address Darfur in his talks with Bashir, and instead promised to cancel $80 million in Sudan's debt and build a new railway line and presidential palace. "I have to be very candid," Natsios told Congress last week. "I was hoping for a little bit more diplomatic pressure from the Chinese."
Meanwhile, reports from the region suggest that the situation in Darfur appears to be worsening. International relief groups have reported almost daily attacks, including rapes and beatings, by both rebels and Janjaweed, against their personnel.
"Even though the nature of the violence may have changed in recent months, the impact of current violence may be more destructive," according to Reeves. "The current insecurity has brought humanitarian organizations to the very verge of withdrawal, and, if they do, we could see mortality in excess of 100,000 per month."
"It is not an exaggeration to fear that the degradation of the humanitarian situation in Darfur may soon result in a catastrophe dwarfing all that has gone before," wrote David Rubenstein, the director of the "Save Darfur Coalition," in a letter to Bush last week.
The Coalition, which represents some 180 church, human rights, and community groups nationwide, called for a series of eight steps to stop the violence, ranging from immediate implementation of targeted sanctions against both Sudanese leadership and the companies it controls and blocking ships that have transported Sudanese oil from U.S. ports to the imposition of a no-fly zone over Darfur and preparing for the deployment of a "credible and effective international force" to protect vulnerable civilians in the region and in Chad.
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Albion Monitor February
11, 2007 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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