Statesmen call for Darfur cease-fire, U.N.-AU forces

.JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) – Veteran statesmen including former President Jimmy Carter appealed Tuesday for an immediate cease-fire in Darfur and called on the Sudanese government to drop all obstacles to the deployment of a U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force.

The group, known as the Elders, released a report of their findings from a trip to Darfur in September. They warned of spiraling violence in the western Sudanese region, including persistent rape of women and girls and attacks on AU peacekeepers now on the ground.

The statesmen stressed the importance of fully equipping a joint U.N.-AU peacekeeping force and deploying it according to schedule. The U.N. has been wrangling with the Sudanese government for the past year over the deployment of a 26,000-member U.N.-AU peacekeeping force to replace an overwhelmed 7,000-member AU force currently on the ground.

The force is expected to take over by Jan. 1 and start deploying early next year. But U.N. officials have accused the Sudanese government of standing in the way by refusing to approve non-African contributions.

“The government of Sudan must stop its obstacles,” Carter said.

In Geneva, U.N. investigators also released a report saying Sudan’s government has failed to protect civilians in Darfur from rape, torture and other violence.

The report by seven U.N. rights experts cited the case of at least 30 civilians killed on Oct. 8 when the rebel stronghold of Muhajiria was attacked by about 900 militia fighters backed by a government plane that bombed the town’s market area. In another case, 12 people were killed on Sept. 26 when rebels attacked a civilian convoy guarded by government soldiers.

More than 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million have been displaced since February 2003 when Darfur’s ethnic African rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated central government, accusing it of neglect.

The Elders is dedicated to fostering peace around the world and said it chose Darfur as its first mission because it was a “blight on the conscience of humanity.”

“We felt we had a moral imperative to join and contribute to the efforts made by many people and organizations to stop the atrocities,” said South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of four members of the group who traveled to Darfur.

“Rape has become a norm,” said Graca Machel, former South African President Nelson Mandela’s wife and a long time children’s rights advocate. “The government of Sudan does not appreciate the gravity of this. In some cases, it doesn’t want to face that it is happening.”

They called for an immediate cease-fire between rebels, government forces, and Arab militias known as the janjaweed.

“Lawlessness and insecurity have bred a culture of violence throughout the camps and the rest of Darfur. The conflict is escalating,” their report said.

In Egypt, U.N. envoy to Darfur Jan Eliasson met in Sharm El-Sheik with his AU counterpart and the foreign ministers of four countries – Egypt, Libya, Eritrea and Chad – trying to promote peace talks in Darfur. Negotiations suffered a setback in October when key rebel leaders boycotted talks in Libya.