NEW YORK – The African Union (search) can quickly mobilize up to 5,000 troops to help end the looting and killing in western Sudan, but it needs hundreds of millions of dollars to deploy the force and so far it's received just $20 million, says Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo (search).
"The troops are ready," said Obasanjo, the current president of the 53-nation regional bloc. "The first pledge which we got was from Canada," which contributed $20 million Wednesday, but the vastly expanded force now needed "hundreds of millions."
In an interview in his hotel suite on Wednesday night, Obasanjo expressed hope that the United States will be more generous in helping Sudan's conflict-wracked Darfur (search) region than it was in last year's Liberia crisis when it offered $200 million to help stabilize and rebuild the country.
On Saturday, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution strongly endorsing the deployment of a beefed-up African Union force with an expanded monitoring mission that would actively try to prevent attacks and mediate to stop the conflict from escalating. It threatens oil sanctions if the government doesn't move quickly to help stop the attacks.
The resolution "will caution the government of Sudan to know that the world is not just folding its hands looking — and that the Sudanese government cannot do what it likes," Obasanjo said.
"The internal affairs of every country today is the concern of the international community and more so, in Africa, the concern of the AU," he said.
The African Union currently has about 80 military observers in Darfur — a region about the size of France — protected by just over 300 soldiers, monitoring a rarely observed cease-fire signed in April by the government and rebels.
The conflict began when two Darfur rebel groups with roots in the region's ethnic African tribes rose up in February 2003, accusing the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum of neglect and discrimination. The government is accused of trying to suppress the rebellion by backing ethnic Arab herdsmen known as Janjaweed (search).
During the past 19 months, over 50,000 people have been killed, dozens of villages have been burned, and over 1.2 million people have fled their homes. The United Nations calls in the world's worst humanitarian crisis and the U.S. Congress has called it genocide, a label Obasanjo disagrees with because he does not see deliberate targeting of a religious, racial or ethnic group.
The Nigerian leader also denied reports that peace talks between the government and rebels which he has been hosting in the capital, Abuja, had broken down.
The parties have agreed on a month-long recess and when they return they will sign a humanitarian protocol, then tackle security issues, and eventually head on to the difficult issue of political arrangements for a permanent solution to the Darfur problem, he said.
Asked whether he was confident of this scenario, Obasanjo said, "That's what's going to happen."
"It's their position that nobody will walk away (from the peace talks) without solving the problem, so you cannot say it broke down," he said.
Obasanjo said it doesn't matter how long the peace talks take.
Initially, Obasanjo said, the Sudanese government believed "it could cope" with the Darfur crisis, but it now recognizes that it cannot and "opened its hand for assistance to allow more AU protection force to come in."
With attacks continuing, and growing international pressure to stop the attacks, the small force now on the ground to protect the military observers will be greatly expanded with a broader role, he said.
"We need to really ensure that the Janjaweed and those opposed to the government of Sudan who have taken up arms have to be separated — and to separate them and keep them separated you need more than just an observer team," Obasanjo said.
"We need between 3,000 and 5,000 troops to carry out protection of the observer team, of the force itself, and ensuring separation between the Janjaweed who are government armed militia and the other side — they call themselves resistance fighters," he said.
Obasanjo had no complaints about the financial support for the small AU force currently in Darfur.
But to deploy thousands of additional troops requires hundreds of thousands of dollars, and until the money and equipment to move, equip and support the expanded force arrives, the soldiers can't deploy.
Earlier Wednesday, African Union Commission Chairman Alpha Oumar Konare told The Associated Press that troop movement depends on logistical help from "Europe, America and the United Nations especially."
So far, he said, there has been just talk about assistance.
"Sometimes people speak big, but when it is time to give big, they are not willing," Konare said.