U.N. peacekeepers won't make a difference in Darfur if contributing nations don't "urgently" provide enough equipment and troops, the world body's peacekeeping chief said as he toured the western Sudanese region where over 200,000 people have already died in five years of fighting.
The mission has less than half the planned 26,000 troops and police, and lacks crucial gear to pacify a region nearly the size of France, said Jean-Marie Guehenno, the U.N. undersecretary general for peacekeeping.
"I hope the international community will match its deeds to its words," Guehenno said in an Associated Press interview in Darfur late Thursday. Western nations have pressed for a U.N. mission for years, pledging to help it end Darfur's violence, which U.S. President George W. Bush called a "genocide."
The U.N. says it now "dramatically" needs 18 transport and six combat helicopters to protect Darfur civilians in case of attack, but none have been offered so far _ though hundreds are readily available for NATO in Europe.
Each potential contributing nation has given "its own reasons" not to offer helicopters, Guehenno said. "But, cumulated, this response is difficult to understand, given the obvious needs in Darfur."
He said U.N. officials are struggling to get enough support for the mission to "make a difference" and bring back security to Darfur, where some 2,5 million refugees are regularly harassed and aid workers increasingly being targeted.
Guehenno said some progress has already been made since the U.N. mission, known as UNAMID, merged with the previous AU force and took over on Jan. 1: peacekeepers had resumed some patrols and the police was returning by daytime to the refugee camps it abandoned because of insecurity.
Despite the "immense challenges" this mission is facing, no one should doubt UNAMID can gradually improve the situation, Guehenno said, hoping that "within this year" the peacekeepers will be able to show they are "making a difference."
But the mission's biggest challenge is "the gap between expectations and what we'll be capable of immediately achieving," he said.
Troops typically take months to deploy once a nation has pledged them, and Guehenno said that, despite "obvious reticence," contributions were urgently needed for UNAMID to reach a critical mass and achieve some tangible successes.
"Urgent means yesterday," he said.
Many Darfur civilians have been pleading for years for the U.N. to end the region's violence, which erupted in 2003 when ethnic African rebels took arms against the central government, accusing it of discrimination. Khartoum denies accusations of widespread atrocities.
The understaffed and under-equipped AU troops that arrived in 2004 were unable to end the fighting, and suffered some 50 casualties themselves. Khartoum spent months resisting a U.N. intervention before agreeing to a compromise deal last June for the blue helmets to deploy in a "hybrid force" that would remain predominantly African.
The Sudanese government has since vetoed some non-African units from coming in, and is blamed for a series of bureaucratic hurdles that is also strongly delaying the mission. Khartoum is, for instance, still negotiating the Status of Forces Agreement that gives peacekeepers a legal framework to operate, and even objects to the color of their helmets, which it wants to keep green in the case of African troops.
Guehenno said there was "no question" all peacekeepers would retain traditional U.N. blue helmets, but declined to discuss other aspects of negotiations because talks with Khartoum are ongoing and because U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is due to meet Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir at an AU summit later this month.
Days after the peacekeeping mission began, a large U.N. supplies convoy was attacked by the Sudanese army, leading some observers to question whether Khartoum will try to limit peacekeeper movements at night or in sensitive areas, as it did with the AU force.
Multiple rebel groups roam the West Darfur zone where the convoy was attacked, and the government said the 12-minute shoot-out was a "mistake." The U.N. has accepted the apologies, but Guehenno said that "Sudanese authorities were informed" about the convoy's whereabouts.
He said peacekeepers could decide to shoot back if similar incidents occur again.
"What we're saying loud and clear is that we have total freedom of movement (in Darfur) and that no one can ... intimidate us," he said, insisting that _ and this was essential for their success _ the UNAMID peacekeepers will go "anywhere, and any time of the day and night."