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Darfur Violence Pits Sudan Against the U.N.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's been more than two years since President Bush labeled the crisis in Darfur a genocide. Yet the militia attacks on civilians in the western region of Sudan continue. The United Nations reports scores of civilians, including two dozen children, were killed in attacks earlier this week. The United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, again called on the Sudanese government to take steps to end the violence.

But as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, there seems little the international community can do.

MICHELE KELEMEN: When President Bush sat down with his envoy to Sudan this week, he sounded frustrated with recent U.S. dealings with the Islamic government in Khartoum.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The government of Sudan must understand that we're serious when you deliver a message to them on behalf of our government that we're earnest and serious.

KELEMEN: As it turns out, Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, refused to meet Mr. Bush's envoy, Andrew Natsios. The government also recently kicked out U.N. special envoy, Jan Pronk, for writing about Darfur on his blog. All this comes as U.S. and U.N. officials acknowledge they're having trouble getting Sudan to accept U.N. peacekeepers. Natsios said in a podcast on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's Web site that international diplomats are now considering other options.

Mr. ANDREW NATSIOS (U.S. Ambassador to the Sudan): Our real interest here is not what it's called or what it looks in terms of its helmet but how robust and how efficient it is.

KELEMEN: The idea is to have Arab states and the U.N. bolster the ill-equipped African Union force on the ground. Michael Gerson, a former Bush speechwriter who's credited with making Darfur a priority at the White House, says it will be hard to make such a force effective. He's also disappointed to see diplomats going out of their way to make an international force acceptable to the same government the U.S. accused of genocide.

Mr. MICHAEL GERSON (Former White House Speechwriter): It's a very hard thing for me to take. You know, when you're on the ground, as I've been, in the camps, you immediately think, why can't we just intervene? Why can't the United States just put boots on the ground? But of course that would create a lot of opportunity for Islamist mischief. I think it would maybe in a certain way play into Bashir's hands.

KELEMEN: As the debate about a security force continues, the conflict is getting worse. And the U.N.'s top humanitarian official, Jan Egeland, says aid workers and civilians are getting caught in the crossfire in an increasingly complex war.

Mr. JAN EGELAND (Undersecretary General, Humanitarian Affairs, U.N.): We as humanitarians are now resigning to the fact that we will have to hang in there by our fingernails still for months to come before there might be a stronger security force.

KELEMEN: In the meantime, Egeland is encouraging negotiators to reopen talks on a peace deal to get more support from the local population in Darfur. Only a fairly marginal rebel group signed the peace agreement in May, and the fighting has only intensified since then, with civilians again suffering the most. Egeland says the rebels are strong enough only to prove that the issues can't be resolved on the battlefield.

Mr. EGELAND: There is no military solution. There is only a settlement that would be political, cultural, economic, between nomads, between farmers, between the tribes, between the Arabs, between the Africans who have been so hard hit by the ethnic cleansing.

KELEMEN: Michael Gerson, the former speechwriter, now with the Council on Foreign Relations, says if Darfur isn't resolved, the Bush administration's other initiatives in Africa will simply be overshadowed.

Mr. GERSON: This is, you know, one of those places in the world where the conscience of the world is tested and engaged and where failure would have a harsh historical judgment.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: And you can read a history of the Darfur conflict at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.