The State Department is pressing Congress to allocate an additional $50 million for peacekeepers in the troubled Darfur region in Sudan where the U.S. budget to pay for African Union troops is running out.
“We are working with Congress on the issue. It is very important that the African Union mission can continue,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told Reuters on Wednesday.
The Darfur conflict began in February 2003 when rebels rose up against what they called their marginalization by the government in Khartoum. The government sent in Arab militias to put down the rebellion but they have been accused of a campaign of rape, looting and murder.
The State Department is concerned that violence is on the rise in Darfur and it will only get worse if U.S. funding runs dry for about 6,000 African Union troops who are already stretched thin and struggling to keep the peace.
Last month, lawmakers stripped $50 million in U.S. funding for African troops in Sudan from a foreign funding bill. The State Department hopes to get the money reinstated via the defense appropriations bill under discussion this week.
The $50 million is needed to cover the U.S. share of approximately $10 million per month for the African troops from February through June, said Oxfam America, an aid group lobbying for the funds.
Aid official: 'Last chance' this year for U.S.
This amount represents about one-third of the monthly cost for the peacekeepers, with the European Union responsible for most of the remainder.
“The defense appropriations bill is the last chance this year for the United States to commit desperately needed and promised funding for the African Union troops in Darfur,” said Sarah Margon, policy advisor at Oxfam America.
“If funds are not allocated this week, the troops will be without vital money to operate throughout the first half of 2006,” she added.
The administration has so far provided nearly $164 million to the African Union in Darfur and airlifted African troops to the region.
The African Union peacekeeping mission has struggled from the start because of a lack of funding and a mandate where they have only limited powers to intervene.
This week, leading foreign policy experts, including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, wrote a letter to Congress urging lawmakers to restore the $50 million.
“Without this funding, the already-stretched AU forces will be unable to meet its mandate of protecting civilians, who are increasingly at risk with the reoccurrence of fighting and insecurity in the region,” said the letter.
It added that civilians suffered harassment, beatings, rape and murder on a daily basis while humanitarian organizations’ efforts to provide basic services to hundreds of thousands of displaced people were hampered.
“We urge Congress to resume its leadership role and restore the U.S. commitment to protecting civilians in Darfur by including at least $50 million in funding to support the African Union Mission in Sudan,” it added.