US envoy assesses Darfur ahead of UN force drawdown

United States' top envoy in Sudan, Steven Koutsis, holds a press conference following a meeting with North Darfur deputy governor Mohamed al-Nabi (L) on June 18, 2017, in the conflict-wracked region's capital Al-Fashir. Photo: Ashraf Shazly / AFP

EL-FASHIR, Sudan - The top US envoy in Sudan on Sunday embarked on a four-day trip to Darfur to assess security in the war-torn region as the United Nations prepared to downsize its 17,000-strong peacekeeping force.

The visit of Steven Koutsis, Washington's charge d'affaires in Khartoum, also came just weeks before President Donald Trump's administration was set to decide whether to permanently lift a two-decades-old US trade embargo on Sudan.

A joint report sent to the UN Security Council last month by the African Union and the United Nations recommends that the ceiling should be set for military troops to be cut by 44 percent and the maximum number of police reduced by 30 percent in the joint peacekeeping force, UNAMID.

Ahead of the expected drawdown, Koutsis embarked on a visit to Darfur for a first-hand assessment of the situation in the region.

The envoy met several Sudanese and UN officials, as well as tribal chiefs, academics and members of civil society groups in the North Darfur capital of El-Fashir.

"We are now discussing with UN the restructuring of UNAMID," he told North Darfur deputy governor Mohamed al-Nabi at a meeting attended by an AFP correspondent, in what was a rare visit by the international media to the conflict-wracked region.

READ: Sudanese human rights defenders face death sentence

"Now the responsibility will fall on local authorities to bring security to the state."

Nabi assured Koutsis that Sudanese security forces were equipped to tackle the security situation, but Koutsis expressed his "concern" over their ability at a separate meeting with academics and university students.

He said he was concerned about "whether the local government and the national government are prepared to assume responsibility of providing security" to the people of Darfur.

Darfur has been engulfed in conflict since 2003, when ethnic minority insurgents mounted a rebellion against President Omar al-Bashir, complaining that his Arab-dominated government in Khartoum was marginalising the region that is of the size of France.

Bashir launched a brutal counter-insurgency, and the United Nations said that at least 300,000 people were killed in the conflict while another 2.5-million were forced to flee their homes.

Sudanese officials claimed the conflict in Darfur ended, but reports of fighting between government forces and rebels continued to emerge.

READ: South Sudan bars foreign media

The cuts to the UNAMID force would result in major savings to the UN peacekeeping budget at a time when Washington was seeking to reduce its financial contribution to the blue helmets.

UNAMID had a budget of $1.4-billion (R13.5-billion) per year, making it one of the UN's costliest missions, along with the UN force in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Washington was expected to decide next month on whether to permanently lift its trade embargo on Khartoum, imposed in 1997.

Before leaving office, former President Barack Obama eased US sanctions, but kept Khartoum on a six-month probation period before Washington formally lifted the trade embargo.

The sanctions were imposed over Khartoum's alleged support for Islamist groups.

Late Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was based in Khartoum from 1992 to 1996.


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