An upsurge of violence in Darfur, where rebels have killed and abducted African Union troops, may force the United Nations to suspend some aid to the west Sudan region, U.N. chief Kofi Annan warned on Monday.
He called on Sudan’s government and rebel movements to take immediate steps to stabilize the situation in the vast desert region and to “engage seriously” in peace talks aimed at finding a political solution to the conflict there.
A breakaway faction of the guerrilla Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) kidnapped 38 African Union personnel on Sunday, a day after the 53-nation pan-African organization suffered its first casualties in the arid region, AU officials said.
JEM fighters helped secure the release of the hostages after gunbattles with the kidnappers, one of the freed hostages and JEM commanders said. The splinter group denied it was involved in the kidnappings.
Annan made his remarks at a Geneva news conference early in the day and in a statement issued by a spokesman later.
In the statement, the spokesman said the U.N. chief “strongly condemns” the killings and abductions and denounced attacks on the African Union mission in Darfur as “completely unacceptable.”
The Cameroonian leader of the African Union team, who was one of the last two hostages still being held on Monday, confirmed that he and his Sudanese translator had been freed after a shootout.
On Saturday, three African Union soldiers and two civilian contractors were killed further south after an ambush blamed on Darfur’s main rebel group, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA).
“Both rebels and government must understand that, if these incidents continue, it will impede humanitarian assistance and delivery,” Annan told the Geneva news conference.
“It’s already impeding access to some of the people in need and it may require a cessation of operations in some parts of the territory,” the U.N. secretary-general said.
The African Union has sent 6,000 troops to monitor a shaky cease-fire in Darfur, where non-Arab rebels took up arms in 2003 accusing the government of neglect and of monopolizing power and wealth.
Aid agencies have denounced bandits in recent weeks for the rising number of attacks on aid convoys trying to deliver supplies in Darfur, where tens of thousands have been killed and 2 million have had to flee their homes since the revolt against Khartoum began.
The increase in violence, coinciding with the start of peace talks in the Nigerian capital Abuja, prompted the African Union last week to voice its harshest public criticism yet of Darfur rebels and the Sudanese government.
On Monday the African Union Peace and Security Council said in a statement it had decided to refer the violence to the U.N. Security Council.
Annan said it was Sudan’s duty to protect both aid workers and African Union peacekeepers on its territory, even if it was rebels who were responsible for the hostage-taking.
African Union stuck in the middle
Civilians are still suffering in Darfur, where rapes and other crimes are being committed, according to the U.N. chief. “A firm stand must be taken by the government,” he demanded.
The leader of the JEM breakaway faction denied involvement in Sunday’s kidnappings and accused the African Union of taking sides.
“The AU have become part of the conflict,” Mohamed Saleh told Reuters from Darfur. “We want the AU to leave and we have warned them not to travel to our areas.”
A sixth round of African Union-sponsored talks began last month between the government and the two main Darfur rebel groups, the SLA and the JEM. But the negotiations have been plagued by rebel divisions and violence on the ground.
African Union sources said Saleh’s group, which split from JEM’s leadership earlier this year, was demanding a seat at the Abuja talks.
Saleh was the military head of JEM who signed the April cease-fire. He said he now commanded thousands of troops in Darfur and would not honor either the cease-fire or any agreement reached in Abuja.
“We went to Abuja and they (the AU) refused to talk to us,” he said. “So now we will not talk to them.” But JEM, SLA and the African Union mediator all said talks in Abuja would continue despite the attacks.