El-Bashir pushes tribal defense

Sudan's president urges resistance to Arab militias

August 14, 2004|By Laurie Goering | Laurie Goering,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

KHARTOUM, Sudan - Facing growing international pressure to stem the violence in Darfur, Sudan's president has called on tribal leaders in the conflict-torn region to form their own security forces to combat Arab militias blamed for thousands of deaths.

President Omar Hassan Ahmed el-Bashir, facing a U.N. deadline to disarm the militias, ordered leaders of about 100 tribes in the region to turn in "outlaws" to the government and to rebuild "social bonds" between Arab and black villagers.

But international human-rights groups said that black villagers in Darfur, the victims of 18 months of attacks by the so-called Janjaweed, have little capacity for self-protection and that Arab tribes that are the source of the Janjaweed may have little incentive to try to disband them.

"It all sounds very suspect to me," said Georgette Gagnon, the deputy director for Africa at Human Rights Watch. El-Bashir "may well be saying, `You guys do this,' knowing full well there's no capacity to disarm well-armed militias."

The United Nations gave Sudan until the end of the month to show progress toward halting the violence in Darfur or face economic and political sanctions. Human rights groups say 30,000 people have died and a million have been driven from their homes since the militias, backed by the Arab government in Khartoum, began attacking and burning villages thought to harbor anti-government rebels demanding greater local autonomy.

Sudan's government insists that the Janjaweed horsemen have no link to Khartoum, despite the repeated use of helicopter reconnaissance and bombing runs coordinated with the ground attacks. The government also insists that the death toll in the conflict has been grossly exaggerated and that at most 5,000 people have died in Darfur.

But the U.S. Congress, and some humanitarian groups, have called the attacks a genocide aimed at destroying black resistance in Darfur to Sudan's Arab-led government.

El-Bashir's order, issued late Thursday, came after two days of talks between the government and the Civil Administration of Darfur's Grand States, which represents the troubled western region's about 100 tribes.

The organization was told to "hand in wanted outlaws to Sudanese authorities and control weapons smuggling across borders," and work with police charged with disarming the Janjaweed.

But human-rights groups said that el-Bashir's order to hand in "outlaws" might well target black rebel leaders rather than militia leaders.

"It all hinges on what he means by outlaws," Gagnon said. To Sudan's government, "outlaws are the rebel forces."

John Prendergast, an Africa adviser to the Washington-based International Crisis Group, described el-Bashir's call for local authorities to handle the Janjaweed as "a very cynical attempt to divert attention away from the government and its primary role and responsibility in disarming" the militia.

"The primary objective is to add another layer of complication," he said. "This is a very deliberate strategy to continue to shroud the dynamic of Darfur in layers of complexity that will make it impossible for international actors to say the government of Sudan has complied with our demands or not."

After years of low-level conflict between Arab and black tribes in Darfur over access to land and resources, many black villages have created small defense forces, Gagnon said.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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