Ethiopia, Bangladesh pledge helicopters for Darfur
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Ethiopia and Bangladesh have offered some of the helicopters the United Nations badly needs for a peace force in Darfur, diplomats said on Tuesday as signs emerged of modest progress on the lagging deployment.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said a much disputed agreement with Sudan was due to be signed this week to regulate the terms on which the 26,000-strong U.N./African Union force will deploy in the violence-torn west Sudanese region.
The accord will not resolve the even more controversial issue of which nations will contribute to the force, but both Ban and diplomats indicated Thai and Nepalese troops would be accepted despite lengthy Sudanese hesitation.
Khartoum has been insisting that as much of the force as possible should be African and has rejected a Nordic engineering unit. The force, currently standing at 9,000 troops, is replacing an ineffectual 7,000-member AU mission.
One major handicap has been the reluctance of countries to provide the 18 attack and six transport helicopters U.N. planners say are vital if the force is to operate effectively in arid and violent Darfur, an area the size of France.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said Ethiopia and Bangladesh had now offered to partially fill the gap. Ethiopia had offered three transport and two attack helicopters, he said.
On Bangladesh, he said, "It's unclear what the offer is but it would require training and refurbishment and all the rest" from other countries.
U.N. officials sounded a note of caution, saying they had seen nothing on paper so far, and the helicopters would have to meet U.N. specifications.
The U.N./AU force is seeking to end a five-year conflict among Sudanese forces, pro-government militias and Darfur rebel groups, which international experts say has killed 200,000 people and made over 2 million homeless. Sudan says the figures are much lower.
STATUS OF FORCES
Ban, speaking after briefing the Security Council on a recent Africa trip, said there was good progress on a "status of forces" agreement with Khartoum. "The (Sudanese) government has indicated that we can expect the signing to take place this week," he told journalists.
Negotiations on the agreement were slowed last year after Sudan said it wanted to ban night flights by the peacekeepers and have the power to disable their communications when they wished -- terms the United Nations said were unacceptable.
Ban gave no details of what the Sudanese had now agreed to beyond saying he had held a "very constructive meeting" with Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir at an AU summit in Addis Ababa last week.
But one U.N. official said, "What they're saying is, 'We can agree the U.N. provisions.' If that happens, that's great."
The proposed Thai and Nepalese units would be the first non-African troops to take part in the U.N./African Union Mission in Darfur, or UNAMID, except for Chinese and Bangladeshi engineering units already in place.
"Our understanding is that even though it may have to still be worked out at technical levels, we will first try to deploy African peacekeepers who are readily available, for example, Egyptians or Ethiopians," Ban said.
"Then, as this deployment is taking place, we will try to deploy Thailand and Nepalese soldiers."
British Ambassador John Sawers said, "My understanding is that the Sudanese have now agreed that the Thais and Nepalese should deploy alongside African deployments."
But he added, "Anyone who dealt with Sudan over the last several years will be wary of announcements of progress ... (but) the Secretary-General has brought back some steps forward."
Ban himself said there were issues, which he did not specify, that remained to be ironed out with Sudan, but he also called on troop contributing nations to speed up preparations.
The U.N. peacekeeping department now says it does not expect full deployment of UNAMID before late this year.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)
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