UNITED NATIONS – The U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a 26,000-strong peacekeeping force for Darfur to help end four years of rape and slaughter in the vast Sudanese region that the world has failed to stop.
The force — the first joint peacekeeping operation by the African Union and the United Nations — will replace the beleaguered 7,000-strong AU force now in Darfur no later than Dec. 31.
While the council urged speedy deployment, the bulk of the force is not expected to be on the ground until next year, and the ultimate troop strength depends on the willingness of U.N. member states to contribute troops, police, logistics and sophisticated military hardware.
If deployed fully, it will be the largest peacekeeping operation in the world.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the "historic and unprecedented resolution" will send "a clear and powerful signal" of the U.N.'s commitment "to improve the lives of the people of the region and close this tragic chapter in Sudan's history."
The 15-member Security Council's approval of the peacekeeping force ended weeks of negotiations between its main sponsors — Britain and France — and the Sudanese government and its key backers including China, which imports two-thirds of Sudan's oil.
The text was watered down several times to remove the threat of sanctions, which Sudan and China opposed, and authorization for the new force to seize or collect arms.
Sudan's U.N. envoy, Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem Mohamad, told reporters the government would discuss the resolution, but said it "contained many positive elements, and also it went to considerable extent to satisfy our concerns."
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad warned that if Sudan does not comply with the resolution "the United States will move for the swift adoption of unilateral and multilateral measures."
"Now Sudan faces a choice. Sudan can choose the path of cooperation or defiance. ... All eyes are upon Sudan, and we look to its government to do the right thing and pursue the path of peace," he said.
Earlier Tuesday, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told a U.N. audience that "if any party blocks progress and the killings continue, I and others will redouble our efforts to impose further sanctions."
The conflict in Darfur began in February 2003 when ethnic African tribes rebelled against what they considered decades of neglect and discrimination by the Arab-dominated government. Sudan's government is accused of retaliating by unleashing a militia of Arab nomads known as the janjaweed — a charge it denies. More than 200,000 people have died, and 2.5 million have been uprooted.
The poorly equipped and underfunded African Union force has been unable to stop the fighting, and neither has the Darfur Peace Agreement, signed a year ago by the government and one rebel group. Other rebel factions called the deal insufficient.
Ban stressed that bolstering the peacekeeping force must be accompanied by stepped up efforts to get all combatants to the peace table.
He said it was crucial that a meeting between the conflict's parties in Tanzania later this week "yield positive results so as to pave the way for negotiations and, ultimately, a peace agreement."
The U.N. and Western governments have pressed Sudan since November to accept a three-stage U.N. plan for a joint force.
After stalling for months, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir agreed in April to a "heavy support package" to strengthen the AU force, including 3,000 U.N. troops, police and civilian personnel along with aircraft and other equipment. The resolution calls for its speedy deployment.
The resolution authorizes the much larger 26,000-strong hybrid force, which will be called UNAMID and have "a predominantly African character," as Sudan demanded.
The force will include up to 19,555 military personnel, a civilian component including up to 3,772 international police, and 19 special police units with up to 2,660 officers.
The U.N. will have overall command but day-to-day operations will be the responsibility of the force commander, Gen. Martin Agwai of Nigeria.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Jean-Marie Guehenno said the U.N. hopes to have the hybrid force's headquarters and command and control structures in place by October.
The resolution has one section under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which deals with threats to peace and security and can be militarily enforced.
It authorizes UNAMID to use force to protect and ensure freedom of movement for its own personnel and humanitarian workers, prevent armed attacks and protect civilians in order to support implementation of the Darfur Peace Agreement.
Guehenno said the big difference in the hybrid force will be its size and mobility because it will have military transport helicopters and combat helicopters.
"If something happens somewhere in Darfur, there's a capacity to react quickly and decisively, and that's a big difference in capacity, and that's going to be one of our top priorities in deploying the mission," he said.