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Peacekeeping mission in Sudan's Darfur ends, stoking fears

Displaced Darfuris stage a sit in to protest against the withdrawal of the United Nations-African Union peacekeeping mission
Displaced Darfuris stage a sit in to protest against the withdrawal of the United Nations-African Union peacekeeping mission - AFP
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Nyala (Sudan) (AFP)

Sudan's hybrid United Nations-African Union mission in Darfur is set to end its 13-year peacekeeping in the conflict-marred region Thursday, even as recent violent clashes leave residents fearful.

Conflict erupted in Darfur in 2003, when African minority rebels rose up against the Arab-dominated government, which in turn unleashed the Janjaweed militias, resulting in a death toll the UN puts at 300,000 and the displacement of 2.5 million.

"The joint United Nations-African Union mission in the Darfur region of Sudan (UNAMID) will officially end operations on Thursday, when the Government of Sudan will take over responsibility for the protection of civilians in the area," the mission said in a statement on Wednesday.

The bitter conflict has largely subsided in recent years and longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir -- wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide and other alleged crimes in the western region -- was deposed last year.

But the country's transitional government is fragile and tribal clashes still periodically flare in Darfur, including clashes last week that left at least 15 people dead and dozens wounded.

Darfuris, many of whom remain in teeming camps years after they fled their homes, have held protests in recent weeks against the mission's imminent departure.

"The lives of Darfuri people are at stake, and the United Nations should reconsider its decision," Mohamed Abdelrahman told AFP on Wednesday at Kalma camp in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur.

He is among hundreds who staged a sit-in outside the mission's headquarters at the camp.

- 'Big trouble' ahead -

Protesters held up banners reading: "we trust UN protection for IDPs (internally displaced people)," and "we reject UNAMID's exit."

The UN said that the phased withdrawal of the mission's approximately 8,000 armed and civilian personnel will begin in January and be completed inside six months.

Longtime Kalma resident Othman Abulkassem fears the troops' departure signals "big trouble" for Darfuris, leaving them at risk of further violence.

UNAMID spokesman Ashraf Eissa sought to temper those fears.

"We understand the concerns of the Darfuri population especially IDPs and other vulnerable groups, but the situation has improved a great deal over the past few years," Eissa told AFP.

"The responsibility now lies with the transitional government and the Sudanese people themselves to enhance peace and security in Darfur."

A UN political mission -- the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS) -- will be installed in Darfur after UNAMID's departure.

It will be tasked with assisting Sudan's transition, peace-building, and aid mobilisation.

Following last week's clashes, Sudanese authorities said government troops will be deployed to the region to contain any violence.

But many are sceptical.

"If the protection of internally displaced people is assigned to the government forces, it will be like handing Darfuris to the forces that committed massacres and rape against them," said 25-year-old Darfuri Intisar Abdelhay.

The Janjaweed, armed militia of mostly Arab nomads unleashed by Khartoum in the early years of the war, were accused by rights groups of "ethnic cleansing" campaigns and widespread rape.

Thousands of the militiamen were later incorporated into Sudan's powerful paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, whose head Mohamed Hamdan Daglo is a key figure in Sudan's transitional government.

- 'No peace yet' -

Bashir was deposed by the army in April last year amid unprecedented months-long protests against his iron-fisted rule.

In August 2019, the military rulers who ousted him agreed a precarious power sharing transition with civilians.

The post-Bashir transition has pushed to build peace with armed rebels, and in October, signed a deal with several outfits, including from Darfur.

Two holdout rebel groups refused to join the deal, including the Darfur-based Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) led by Abdelwahid Nour, a faction which is believed to maintain considerable local support.

Clashes in Darfur over land and access to water still occur, mainly pitting nomadic Arab pastoralists against crop-growing farmers from long marginalised ethnic groups.

"There is not yet full and comprehensive peace in Sudan," said Kalma resident Mohamed Hassan.

"And until there is, we are against the end of the UNAMID mission."

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