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By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Khartoum's U.N. envoy, rejecting a bleak U.N. assessment of the situation in Sudan's conflict-torn western Darfur region, said on Monday it was time for international peacekeepers to prepare to leave.
Saying it omitted key information, Sudan's U.N. ambassador, Abdalmahmoud Abdalhaleem, criticized the latest report about Darfur by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, which says Khartoum has broken a deal on deploying the peacekeepers.
"One big fact should be the focus of the report -- that the war is over," he told Reuters. "With peace in sight, the U.N. should, in coordination with the African Union and Sudanese government, plan for an exit strategy."
The U.N.-AU mission in Darfur, known as UNAMID, has been fraught with difficulties. For nearly two years, the mission's commanders have faced bureaucratic delays and other obstacles in deploying the 26,000 peacekeepers approved by the U.N. Security Council.
Ban's new report says there are now close to 20,000 troops and police deployed in Darfur, the site of what U.N. officials say is one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.
The report also accuses Sudan of harassing and limiting movements of UNAMID personnel in breach of an agreement with Khartoum on their deployment.
"The repeated incidents of government officials preventing access to UNAMID patrols are a direct violation of the Status of Forces Agreement with the government of the Sudan and a serious impediment to the mission's capacity to implement its mandate," Ban said in the report.
The harassment included bureaucratic delays, warning shots fired at UNAMID, weapons pointed at convoys and Sudanese army helicopters flying low over UNAMID "in a threatening manner."
The Darfur conflict began in 2003 when mostly non-Arab rebels revolted after accusing Khartoum of neglecting Darfur. A counterinsurgency campaign drove more than 2 million people from their homes. The United Nations says as many as 300,000 people died, but Khartoum rejects that figure.
FEARS OF NEW VIOLENCE
Abdalhaleem said U.N. efforts should focus on ensuring that peace talks between the government and rebels are a success.
Ban's assessment contrasts sharply with those of some UNAMID officials who have suggested recently the conflict in Darfur was essentially over. The former head of UNAMID said in August that Darfur was no longer at war.
Two months later, however, UNAMID said that Sudanese government and rebel forces were massing troops in Darfur, raising fears that new violence could break out.
UNAMID has been struggling for two years to stabilise the situation and protect civilians in Darfur, which is roughly the size of France, but Ban said Khartoum continued to make it difficult for UNAMID to carry out its day-to-day duties.
U.N. officials say Darfur is also plagued by rampant banditry and that a wave of kidnappings of aid workers has led some humanitarian aid agencies to curtail staff in the region, causing a 50 percent cut in aid presence in remote areas.
Ban's report said government forces and armed rebel groups continued to clash in Darfur, making it clear that neither side was committed to a peaceful solution to the crisis.
It also said the militaries of Sudan and neighbouring Chad had been fighting along their border and that U.N./AU mediator Djibril Bassole's "efforts to resume peace negotiations between the parties (in Darfur) were not successful."
Ban said it would not be easy to ensure that national elections scheduled for April 2010 are free and fair or that people in Darfur are able to participate in a meaningful way.
The report said that registration of political parties was a "particularly difficult issue." The only party to campaign in Darfur so far has been the National Congress Party of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who was hit with an international arrest warrant in March for suspected war crimes in Darfur.
Khartoum retaliated by expelling 13 foreign aid agencies after Bashir's indictment by the International Criminal Court.
(Editing by Peter Cooney)