The Killing of Seven UN Peacekeeping Personnel in Darfur: An Update, 18 July 2013
By Eric Reeves

Unamid troopsJuly 18, 2013

All evidence to date strongly suggests that the armed force responsible for the killing of seven Tanzanian members of the UN/African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) is a Khartoum-allied militia force led by Hamouda Bashir (seventeen peacekeeping personnel were wounded, some very seriously).  Radio Dabanga reports today (July 18, 2013), on the basis of a series of interviews with witnesses on the ground, the following (all emphases have been added; there are a few very small edits for clarity, chiefly punctuation):

[Excerpts]

• The UN says the identity of the armed group that ambushed a UNAMID patrol in South Darfur on Saturday morning “has not yet been established”; however, witnesses have told Radio Dabanga that “UN vehicles” were spotted in the area being driven by members of a known government militia.

• During his daily press briefing in New York on Monday, spokesman for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Martin Nesirky…said that “the peacekeepers were attacked when they were undertaking a routine confidence-building patrol. The peacekeepers were outnumbered four to one by their attackers who numbered between 100 and 150.  [The attackers] had trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns. Nesirky said the “the UN is conducting its own investigations and calls on the Government of Sudan to identify and bring to account those responsible.”

• Various witnesses from South Darfur have reported to Radio Dabanga that “two UN cars were spotted on Saturday being driven by members of the government Central Police Reserve, nicknamed Abu Tira.”

• “The soldiers driving the cars were dressed in uniforms with the distinctive ‘eagle insignia’ on their shoulder,” they said. Apparently, the vehicles had “at least five uniformed members of the Central Police Forces of Sudan on each side of the back.”

• Observers say that the vehicles were driven from Hamada Forest (Khaba Hamada), through the area of Manawashi, across the bridge of Musko (Wadi Abu Hamra) in the direction of Shengil Tobaya. “When they reached Shengil Tobaya, they turned west towards one of militia’s bases in Jebel Afara, just cross the border in North Darfur.” The UN vehicles are now reportedly parked in the fenced base in Jebel Afara. The witnesses also confirmed that “nine Abu Tira vehicles” were at the market of Manawashi early on Saturday early morning to buy food. [The UN reported] that about ten vehicles were involved in the attack on the Tanzanian force—ER]

• “They bought meat before driving off in the direction of the Hamada Forest, a bush area that lies a few kilometres off the main road connection between El Fasher and Nyala.”

• Over the past few days, several people have reported in detail to Radio Dabanga that the local Abu Tira commander, Hamouda Bashir, was recognised.  Bashir is the right-hand man of Ali Kushayb, one of the main commanders of the Abu Tira [and who] has been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged war crimes.

• The local population of the villages who testify to the presence of Abu Tira on Saturday morning mainly consist of Arab tribes and people from the Birgid, Barno and Tama tribes. They confirmed to Radio Dabanga that no SLA-MM troops were present.

Only several furgan (tent encampments) of traditional nomad camel caravans of the three main Arab tribes of Irigat, Awlad Beni Mansour, and Itifad roam this area.

• UNAMID has confirmed that the ambush occurred about 25 kilometres north/northwest of the Mission’s Khor Abeche base [i.e. a few kilometers off the main Nyala/el-Fasher road (see above)—ER]. “The UNAMID patrol was a relatively small one. It was ambushed by a large group, so we were completely outnumbered. We came under heavy fire from machine guns and possibly from rocket-propelled grenades,” a spokesman told Radio Dabanga. Several UNAMID vehicles, including armoured patrol vehicles and Land Cruisers had to be towed from the scene. The wheels of the patrol vehicles were all blown.

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This account comports with previous reports I have received from the region, which have made the same claims about responsibility for the attack.  And yet the story of this outrageous crime is about to disappear into the abyss of UN expediency.  For the simple fact is that neither the UN nor the AU has any interest in an investigation that clearly establishes Khartoum’s responsibility.  For all the vigorous rhetoric that has come from various UN officials and others, it is merely rhetoric (an exception may be Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete).  Past behavior makes clear that neither element of the UNAMID “hybrid”—the UN and the AU—has any stomach for confronting Khartoum.  This was made especially clear following the deadly attack on a UNAMID convoy traveling to Hashaba in North Darfur last October, a mission that had as its task the investigation of a civilian massacre in the Hashaba area.  The attack was clearly the work of Khartoum-allied militia, as a great deal of evidence made clear (see “Violence in Hashaba, North Darfur: A brutal portent, another UN disgrace” at http://www.sudanreeves.org/?p=3525).  To date, there has been no assignation of responsibility, and the rhetoric of the moment has proved entirely empty.

There is a compelling historical precedent here.  For the same failure to assign responsibility for a deadly attack defined the response of the UN Secretariat and Security Council following an extraordinarily fierce attack on a UNAMID patrol on July 8, 2008 by what were clearly Khartoum-allied militia forces.  During a three-hour fire-fight near the village Umm Hakibah, North Darfur (approximately 100 kilometers southeast of el-Fasher), seven UNAMID personnel were killed and 22 wounded, some critically (see http://www.sudanreeves.org/?p=2219).  This remains the highest casualty total among the many attacks on UNAMID over the past five and a half years.  The head of the UN peacekeeping at the time, Jean-Marie Guéhenno, was explicit about responsibility in his July 11, 2008 briefing of the Security Council (we have had nothing comparable from the current head of UN peacekeeping, Hervé Ladsous):

[1] Guéhenno told the Security Council that the attack on UN-authorized peacekeepers “took place in an area under Sudanese government control and that some of the assailants were dressed in clothing similar to Sudanese army uniforms. He also said the ambush was ‘pre-meditated and well-organized’ and was intended to inflict casualties rather than to steal equipment or vehicles” (Voice of America [UN/New York], July 11, 2008). The peacekeepers who were attacked reported seeing approximately 200 fighters, many on horses—a signature feature of the Janjaweed (often translated as “devil [or spirit] on horseback”).

[2] Agence France-Presse reported: “Guéhenno was quoted as saying that the ambush was designed ‘to inflict casualties’ and was carried out with ‘equipment usually not used by (rebel) militias'” (UN/New York], July 11, 2008). Separately and confidentially, a UN official went further in confirming to me that some of the arms used, including large-caliber recoilless rifles, have never been seen in the arsenals of the rebel groups. This official said that Guéhenno, who is retiring, had rarely been so explicit in assigning responsibility for attacks in Darfur.

There was additional conviction that the Janjaweed—armed and in this case almost certainly directed by Khartoum’s military command—were responsible for this attack on 61 Rwandan soldiers, 10 civilian police officers, and two military observers, who were returning to their el-Fasher base after investigating the killing of two civilians:

[3] Agence France-Presse reports from Khartoum on the views of UN and African Union officials on the ground in Darfur: “Officials in the African Union and UN peacekeeping mission in Darfur, known as UNAMID, said on Wednesday [July 9, 2008] that suspected Janjaweed militia, who have fought with the state [i.e., Government of Sudan], were behind the attack that killed seven peacekeepers” (July 10, 2008).

Why, then, is this UN-authorized peacekeeping force so intimidated by Khartoum?  Why has the regime not been directly confronted over these brutal, criminal attacks?  For the same reason that the UN has deferred on so many other occasions to sensibilities of the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party: because a direct accusation of Khartoum would likely prompt a crisis in which the regime, particularly the more militaristic elements, would demand that UNAMID withdraw.  And with an environment that had suddenly become “non-consensual,” UN instincts would almost certainly be to use this as an excuse for abandoning a mission that has failed and has been targeted for “draw-down” on the basis of supposedly improved security “conditions on the ground” (this was Ladsous’ assessment this past April).

This in turn would almost certainly lead to wholesale withdrawal by international non-governmental humanitarian organizations, and UN security regulations would restrict all UN agencies to exceedingly small areas of Darfur.  Nearly all the displaced persons camps would be beyond reach.  Without strong support from international actors such as the U.S., the EU, and individual African nations, this scenario would play out with a grim relentlessness.

This is why the UN and AU—despite the rhetoric—wish for nothing so much as that this story disappear and that some suitably ambiguous report be accepted as “definitive.”  Its most likely form will be to acknowledge the fact of Khartoum’s claiming that the Minni Minawi faction of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA/MM) is responsible—but that there is “other evidence” on the ground that contradicts this claim.  The language of the report (if in fact one is issued) will be as irresolute, as ambiguous, and as non-confrontational as possible.

This is the UN and AU tribute to the courage of the seven Tanzanian personnel who lost their lives, and the seventeen who were wounded in the attack of July 13, 2013.

Eric Reeves
Smith College
Northampton, MA  01063
413-585-3326
ereeves@smith.edu