KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Sudan’s Darfur region is no longer in a state of war and only has one rebel group capable of mounting limited military campaigns, the head of the area’s peacekeeping force said as he ended his tour of duty.
The commander of the joint U.N./African Union UNAMID force, Martin Luther Agwai, told reporters the conflict had now descended into banditry and “very low intensity” engagements, that could still carry on to blight the remote western region for years without a peace deal.
“As of today, I would not say there is a war going on in Darfur,” he said in a briefing in Khartoum late on Wednesday.
“Militarily there is not much. What you have is security issues more now. Banditry, Localized issues, people trying to resolve issues over water and land at a local level. But real war as such, I think we are over that.”
The six-year Darfur conflict has pitted pro-government militias and troops against mostly non-Arab rebels, who took up arms in 2003, demanding better representation and accusing Khartoum of neglecting the development of the region.
Estimates of the death count in Darfur range from 10,000 according to Khartoum, to 300,000 according to the United Nations. Aid workers say more than 2.7 million people have been driven from their homes by the fighting.
Agwai became the latest senior figure to appear to play down the current level of violence in Darfur where the conflict has caught the world’s attention and mobilized activists who have accused Khartoum of genocide.
Mostly Western campaigners and some diplomats were angered by comments from UNAMID’s political leader Rodolphe Adada in April that Darfur had subsided into a “low-intensity conflict,” and from U.S. Sudan envoy Scott Gration in June that he had seen the “remnants of genocide” in the region, stopping short, they said, of describing a current genocide.
Agwai said the fierce fighting of the early years of the conflict had subsided as rebel groups split into rival factions.
“Because of the fragmentation of the rebel groups, I do not see any major thing that can take place.
“Apart from JEM, I do not see any other group that can launch an attack on the ground,” he said referring to the Justice and Equality Movement, a rebel force that launched an unprecedented attack on Khartoum last year.
Agwai said JEM still had the capability to launch sporadic attacks, but did not have the manpower to hold territory.
“JEM has the capacity of sneaking in small groups, of attacking and after a while withdrawing.
“But fighting to secure ground and dominate it and move on and say ‘this is our territory’ … that is finished.” Agwai said there was still a chance full blown fighting could break out again. “I would never say never.”
JEM has clashed a number of times with the Sudanese army in recent months, in the strategic south Darfur town of Muhajiriya in January and in Umm Baru and other settlements close to north Darfur’s border with Chad in May.
In both cases JEM said it decided to withdraw voluntarily to protect locals from government air attacks.
Agwai, who is due to leave Sudan on Thursday after two years’ at the head of the peacekeeping force, has been outspoken about delays in manning and equipping UNAMID.
At the end of June, just over 60 percent of UNAMID’s planned full strength of 26,000 troops and police had been deployed in Darfur, an area roughly the size of France. The U.N. hopes 90 percent will be on the ground by the end of the year.