Although sporadic fighting persists in Sudan`s Darfur region, where the Government and rebels have waged a deadly seven-year war, and formal talks for a political solution have not yet been possible, recent positive developments give rise for some optimism, a senior United Nations peacekeeping official said today.
While the challenges in Darfur remain enormous, there is a hope and an opportunity that the coming year will bring positive changes for the region, " Assistant-Secretary-General for Rule of Law and Security Institutions in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), Dmitry Titov, told the Security Council of a conflict that has killed an estimated 300,000 people and displaced 2.7 million others.
He cited recent high-level talks between the leaders of Sudan and Chad to increase security along their common border and Chad`s decision to expel Sudanese armed opposition groups as a very positive step. "
He also noted that the joint African Union-UN peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID), which has faced significant difficulties in reaching its full complement of some 26,000 military and police personnel as well as helicopter and other logistical capability, has taken significant steps " towards full deployment, with all but two of its 18 battalions on the ground by the end of the month and an Ethiopian tactical helicopter unit due in mid-February.
But he warned that the sporadic fighting among the rebel forces and between the Government and the rebels, carjackings and attacks on humanitarian workers, as well as the intentional killing of five UNAMID peacekeepers in December and restriction by all sides on the mission`s freedom of movement, seriously undermine efforts to achieve a political solution to the conflict and continue to put civilian lives at risk. "
In his latest report to the Council on UNAMID, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the mission was now focused on protecting civilians and facilitating humanitarian delivery. He voiced deep concern at the attacks on the peacekeepers, as well as threats of physical harm against UNAMID staff, shots fired in the air and the theft or confiscation of the mission`s equipment.
He cited 21 recent instances in which the peacekeepers` movement was restricted and urged the Government to ensure that those responsible for killing peacekeepers be brought to justice.
On the political front, informal discussions in Doha, Qatar, between Government and rebel representatives are continuing, but formal talks have not been possible and two of the rebel coalitions known as the Addis and Tripoli Groups have shown themselves unprepared so far for substantive negotiations, while questions remain whether the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) is ready to join in negotiations that involve the other groups, Mr. Titov said.
They must engage more constructively and with greater flexibility, " he added.
With several major landmark events on the horizon, including national elections this year and a referendum in 2011 on possible independence for southern Sudan which was embroiled in a two-decade-long civil war until a peace agreement in 2005, he said it was important that Darfur`s challenges be viewed in a national context, taking into account power- and wealth-sharing.
Registered voters in Darfur have reached the impressive " figure of almost 70 per cent of the eligible population, he noted, but only a small fraction of the 2.7 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) have registered. Concrete steps must be taken by the Government of National Unity to ensure free, fair and credible elections, " he said.
Among measures which should have been put in place are those necessary to ensure the meaningful participation of especially internally displaced persons, refugees and other groups affected by the conflict. It would be particularly important since the internally displaced communities represent the interests of those left out of the electoral process. "
He also stressed that restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly must be lifted in Darfur, as they already have been elsewhere in the vast country, Africa`s largest.
Noting that Sudan`s electoral commission faces enormous technical challenges, including the establishment of hundreds of thousands of polling stations and transporting large quantities of electoral material to remote locations, he said UNAMID was ready to help in addressing technical issues but was constrained by available resources.