Fears mount as UN peacekeeping mission comes to an end in Sudan's Darfur

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The United Nations-African Union peacekeeping mission in Sudan’s Darfur region is set to end on Thursday after a 13 year presence. However, the fragile nature of the transitional government and recent deadly clashes have stoked fears that new conflict is on the horizon.

"The joint United Nations-African Union mission in the Darfur region of Sudan (UNAMID) will officially end operations on Thursday, when the Government of Sudan will take over responsibility for the protection of civilians in the area," the mission said in a statement on Wednesday.

The UN said that the phased withdrawal of the mission's approximately 8,000 armed and civilian personnel will begin in January and be completed inside six months.

A UN political mission -- the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS) -- will be installed in Darfur after UNAMID's departure.

It will be tasked with assisting Sudan's transition, peace-building, and aid disbursement.

Fighting erupted in Darfur in 2003, when ethnic minority rebels rose up against the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum, which responded by recruiting and arming notorious Arab-dominated militia known as the Janjaweed.

A total of 300,000 people were killed and 2.5 million displaced, according to the United Nations.

The Janjaweed have been accused by human rights groups of carrying out widespread killings and rapes as part of a broader campaign of "ethnic cleasing" in the early years of the conflict.

Darfuris, many of whom remain in overcrowded camps years after they fled their homes, have held protests in recent weeks against the mission's imminent departure.

Protests in camps

"The lives of Darfuri people are at stake, and the United Nations should reconsider its decision," Mohamed Abdelrahman told AFP on Wednesday at Kalma camp in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur.

He is among hundreds who staged a sit-in outside the mission's headquarters at the camp.

"If the protection of internally displaced people is assigned to the government forces, it will be like handing Darfuris to the forces that committed massacres and rape against them," warned 25-year-old Darfuri Intisar Abdelhay.

The country's transitional government is still finding its feet. It was inaugurated four months after the ouster of longtime leader Omar al-Bashir in April 2019, following mass protests.

Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide and other alleged crimes in the western region.

Clashes over natural resources

One of the key figures of the new government is Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, who heads up the powerful paramilitary Rapid Support Forces which counts thousands of Janjaweed militiamen in its ranks.

Although the new government has pushed to build peace with rebel groups in all three of Sudan's main conflict zones, including Darfur, two rebel groups refused to join the deal.

One is the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) faction led by Abdelwahid Nour, which is believed to maintain considerable support in Darfur.

Ethnic and tribal clashes still flare in the region, over land and access to water, mainly pitting nomadic Arab pastoralists against settled farmers from non-Arab ethnic groups.

Last week clashes left at least 15 people dead and dozens wounded.

Following the recent violence, Sudanese authorities said government troops would be deployed to the region.

Over the years, many international celebrities have spoken out over the fallout of the civil war, namely American actor George Clooney, who was named a UN Messenger of Peace in 2010.

He set up "Not on Our Watch", a humanitarian group that raised over 9 million dollars to draw global attention to Darfur.

(with AFP)