A reduction in fighting in Sudan’s Darfur, where a brutal conflict has killed thousands, prompted the UN to downsize the number of peacekeepers deployed there, a top UN official said Thursday.
In June, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution that will cut the number of troops and police serving in the joint African Union-UN mission in Darfur, known as UNAMID, by 30 percent despite concerns raised by rights groups and US officials.
The United Nations and African Union maintain that the Darfur conflict is winding down and that the mission — among the costliest with a budget of over $1 billion — should be trimmed.
“The fact is that there is much less fighting in Darfur,” Jean-Pierre Lacroix, chief of UN peacekeeping operations, told reporters in Khartoum.
He said a trimmed down UNAMID will be redeployed mainly to the mountainous Jebel Marra region which still is “complicated and more tense”.
Deployed in 2007, UNAMID has about 16,000 blue helmets on the ground who are tasked with protecting civilians in the war that Sudan’s government forces and pro-Khartoum militias are waging against rebel groups.
The Darfur conflict erupted in 2003 when ethnic minority rebels took up arms against President Omar al-Bashir’s Arab-dominated government, accusing it of marginalising the region.
Since then, more than 2.5 million people have been displaced and 300,000 killed, the UN says.
The Security Council decided to downsize UNAMID after US pressure led to a $600-million cut in the UN budget for peacekeeping operations.
Human rights groups warn that the Darfur conflict is still far from over and that the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers will leave many areas of the region without international protection.
“As we have seen it is not clear that the government is fully able at this point to do that,” Top US envoy to Sudan Steven Koutsis told AFP in June.
In a separate incident, some 1,000 students from Darfur who were trying to enter Khartoum to demand the release of some fellow pupils accused of killing two policemen were prevented by security agents from entering the capital, activists said on Thursday.
The students from Bakt al-Rida university in the state of White Nile were stopped at the southern gate of Khartoum two days ago, Abbas al-Khair, a representative of Darfur Students Association told reporters in Khartoum.
Two groups of students had clashed in May over the result of an election for the university’s student union, Khair said, adding that two policemen were killed when they intervened to break up the clashes.
The university had also expelled 14 Darfuri students at that time, Khair said, demanding that they be readmitted into the university.
He said nearly 1,000 students from Darfur studying at the university had quit the university in protest at the arrest of the 10 students and expulsion of the other 14 in May.
“We want the detained students to be released and those expelled to be taken back in the university,” Khair said.
Amnesty International criticised Sudan’s powerful National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) for preventing the students from entering Khartoum.
“Instead of stopping them, the authorities should protect them and ensure that their grievances are heard,” said Amnesty’s Muthoni Wanyeki in a statement.