Despite ceasefire agreements between the Sudanese government and two rebel groups in that country's western Darfur region, fighting again erupted in November, posing a serious challenge to African and international efforts to find a peaceful solution.
"Chaos is looming as order is collapsing," UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned in December. "Unfortunately, the optimism generated on the political front was overshadowed by regression in the security situation."
Peace talks, which marked further progress in early November, were marred two weeks later by new fighting, when one of the rebel groups briefly seized the town of Tawilla and killed nearly 30 government police officers. The government quickly regained control by driving out the rebels with aerial bombardments.
The war in Darfur erupted in February 2003 after years of skirmishes over land and water between ethnic groups that identify themselves mainly as "African" or "Arab."
The two main rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement, accused the central government in Khartoum of supporting Arab pastoralists in their disputes with African farmers. Most observers have blamed the Sudanese armed forces and a pro-government militia, known as the Janjaweed, for most of the atrocities in the war, including killing and raping civilians and destroying homes, wells and crops.
The conflict has already left tens of thousands of people dead. Some 2.3 million require emergency assistance, including an estimated 1.65 million who have been uprooted from their homes.
In a December report to the UN Security Council, Mr. Annan warned that insecurity will persist if the government fails to take the necessary first step of disarming the Janjaweed militia, as the Council demanded in September.
In response, Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail said his government had made "relentless efforts" to meet its obligations to the UN.
He reported that the Sudanese authorities have convicted 12 Janjaweed militia members and sentenced three to death, donated large amounts of food relief, dramatically stepped up access to hospitals and health centres across Darfur and taken part in ongoing peace talks in Nigeria with the two rebel groups.
The Darfur crisis has been widely debated within the UN and among other international organizations and human rights groups.
But the African Union (AU), the continent's most authoritative political body, has taken on the main responsibility for facilitating a solution. It has done so both by sponsoring peace talks and by fielding a modest peacekeeping mission to monitor the agreements.
The first AU-mediated ceasefire agreement was signed in Ndjamena, Chad, in April.
However, the rebel movements initially refused to sign the negotiated protocols on improving the security and humanitarian situations until agreement on other issues had been reached. Finally, at the AU's urging, they and the government signed the protocols in early November in Abuja, Nigeria.
On the ground, the AU is also leading international efforts to boost security. It has pledged to send a total of 3,300 troops, and possibly up to 5,000.
As of December, the AU's African Mission in Sudan (AMIS) had in place just over 100 military observers, protected by about 800 troops. The mission has made some modest contributions, including presiding over prisoner exchanges and recovering stolen aid vehicles.
"The AU is doing its best," Mr. Alpha Oumar Konaré, chairperson of the organization's executive Commission, said in December in response to accusations by human rights groups that it should be doing more. "While it's true that there are difficulties in rapidly deploying men on the ground, we are there and we are helping."
African political analysts point out that the Darfur crisis poses a notable challenge to the continental body. If it cannot help restore peace in Sudan, "We will take a long time to recover our credibility," a senior AU political officer, Mr. Jean-Baptiste Natama, told the Sudan Tribune in November.
"Darfur is a critical test for the AU," Mr. Adam Thiam, a spokesman for the organization, agrees. But he adds that it will be "an even bigger test for the AU's partners."
African countries have made the commitment to provide troops, yet have inadequate communications equipment, transport, fuel, medical supplies and financial resources to maintain a sizeable force on the ground. "There is no way we can do this without our partners' financial assistance," says Mr. Thiam.
For months, the international community has proclaimed its readiness to end the suffering in Darfur, and both the US and the EU have provided some assistance to the AMIS mission.
Out of the total $44 mn required to maintain the current mission, the AU, as of late October, had obtained $31 mn in pledges, of which $26 mn was actually received.
Even that amount pales in comparison with the estimated $220 mn needed annually to support an expanded mission of several thousand troops.
"There's a disconnect between the urgency attached to the need to deploy and the pipeline to finance this operation," UN Under-Secretary General and Special Adviser on Africa Ibrahim Gambari said in October. "What's actually missing is that flow of funds."
That view was echoed by a Western diplomat who spoke anonymously to a US newspaper. "We need more people on the ground, and if [Western powers] don't want to be those people on the ground, then we need to give logistical and financial support beyond what we are intending," he said. "The African countries are ready to get the job done. The question is: are we? Our rhetoric is not matched by resources."
Strict rules of engagement
In addition to limited financial backing, the AU mission is also operating under strict rules of engagement. AMIS troops are authorized only to verify whether the government and rebel groups are fulfilling their obligations under the Ndjamena ceasefire agreement.
Their mandate does not authorize them to protect civilians, intervene in fighting or disarm warring factions.
Despite those restrictive rules, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda insisted that the troops from his country participating in the AMIS mission would not stand aside if civilians are threatened. "In my view," he said, "it does not make sense to give security to peace observers, while the local population is left to die."
So far, the Sudanese government has declined to consider a formal expansion of AMIS's mandate. It argues that it is improving security on its own and that foreign troops would only complicate the situation. The government has, however, agreed to an increase in the number of AU troops.
Rights and security
The AU's efforts in Sudan are taking place amidst sharp international criticisms of the Sudanese government's rights violations.
The US authorities have characterized the situation there as one of "genocide," while others refer to it as "ethnic cleansing" or massive human rights abuses.
In late November, the European Union (EU) proposed a resolution to condemn the atrocities in Darfur in the UN General Assembly's Third Committee, which deals with social, humanitarian and cultural issues. Led by African representatives, a majority of delegates voted to take "no action" on the resolution.
The African Group of delegates explained that while there is no denying the human rights violations, it did not agree with the "double standards" by which only certain countries are condemned.
Moreover, it pointed out, the EU had failed to consult with the AU mediators, thereby detracting from the principle of African political leadership in resolving the crisis.
The UN Secretary-General's special representative for Sudan, Mr. Jan Pronk of the Netherlands, has pointed out that violations have also come from the rebel side. Following the late-November attack in Tawilla by the SLA, Mr. Pronk warned rebel leaders to desist from further provocations.
"The international community is going to make you responsible for your actions," he said. Those who violate peace agreements "have to get the message from everybody at the same time with the same force."
In mid-December, two employees of the UK-based Save the Children aid agency were killed in south Darfur, apparently by SLA rebels.
Further such attacks on humanitarian personnel could jeopardize international relief efforts, warned Mr. Jan Egeland, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
He urged greater support for the AU mission, noting that security on the ground is essential for saving Sudanese lives.