EL FASHIR, Sudan -- Although the peacekeeping authority in the conflict-torn western Sudanese region of Darfur was handed over Monday by the African Union (AU) to a hybrid force formed by the United Nations and the AU, challenges are still prominent for a success of the peacekeeping operation.
In the transfer ceremony held at the headquarters of the hybridforce in El Fashir, the capital of North Darfur State, African soldiers who had served in the AU peacekeeping force exchanged their green headgear for the UN blue beret.
An AU flag which had been fluttering for three and half years was also replaced by a flag of the hybrid force.
The first challenge for the hybrid peacekeeping operation is the lack of human resources as most of the countries which have promised to send troops to join the hybrid force are reluctant to do that in view of the complicated and dangerous situation in the region, where more than 20 rebel movements and more armed tribal groups are fighting the government and sometimes fighting each other.
Even the African peacekeepers, which were sent to the region in 2004 to monitor a fragile ceasefire, have sometimes become target of assault.
More than 50 AU soldiers have lost their lives in Darfur since 2004, with 12 killed as the result of an attack alone by unknown gunmen at Haskanita, South Darfur, in September 2007.
In a message sent to the transfer ceremony, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and Chairperson of the AU Commission Alpha Oumar Konare emphasized the need for troop and police contributing countries to deploy their personnel as quickly as possible.
"If we are to have a real impact on the situation on the ground within the first half of 2008, these deployments must happen far more swiftly than they have done so far", Ban Ki-Moon and Konare said in the message.
On July 31, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1769, authorizing the deployment the hybrid force including some 20,000 troops and more than 6,000 police and civilian staff to replace the under funded AU peacekeeping force.
Over 9,000 uniformed personnel are currently on the ground, including 7,000 troops and 1,200 police serving with the AU force, as well as UN soldiers and police officers who had been sent to Darfur as part of the UN heavy and light support packages deployed to support the AU Mission in Sudan (AMIS) over the last year.
Even for the peacekeepers who have already been deployed in Darfur, a region of France's size, they have not been equipped with enough instruments for long-distance moves and transportation especially helicopters.
The UN and AU chiefs also noted that critical gaps remained in the hybrid force as no pledges had been received so far for ground and transportation units and aviation assets, which are essential to the mobility of the force and its ability to adequately protect the civilian population in the vast area of Darfur.
Obviously the hybrid force has not so far won sufficient confidence from the various parties, including the Sudanese government and its institutions and agents in the region, as well as the rebel groups, local residents and displaced persons.
Khartoum has repeatedly expressed a fear that the hybrid force could be used by Western countries, which it has accused of having "hidden agenda" in Darfur, to sabotage Sudan's sovereignty and political stability.
Rebel groups, on the other hand, have announced their opposition to the participation of some countries which have good relations with Khartoum in the hybrid force, calling for more contribution and more active role of the Western countries in it.
Meanwhile, most local citizens and displaced persons have doubted that the deployment of the hybrid force could lead to a quick realization of security and stability in the region in view of their bitter experiences with the existence of the under funded and poor-equipped AU peacekeeping force.
Only one day before the transfer ceremony, the Sudanese authorities arrested six members of the rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), including its representative in the Ceasefire Commission (CFC) in El Fashir, a move over which the AU has expressed its concern.
Ban Ki-Moon and Konare indicated that to succeed, the hybrid force would need the active cooperation of the Sudanese government, adding that they were encouraged that Sudan recently agreed to a number of points related to the UN-AU Mission in Darfur (UNAMID)deployment and expected Khartoum to follow through on the commitments it had made.
Stressing that the deployment of UNAMID will only be as effective as the political process it is mandated to support, they urged all parties to cease all military action and turn their energies to the substance of the negotiations and to come to the negotiations table to settle their differences.
In his address at the ceremony, representative of the Sudanese government and Governor of North Darfur State Osman Mohammed Yousef Kibr reiterated that his government would provided necessary supports and assistances for the hybrid peacekeeping force.
"The government is committed to all the agreements and understandings it has reached with the UN and the AU, and will provide all the necessary support for the success of the hybrid operation," the governor noted.
He, meanwhile, praised the efforts which had been exerted by the AU peacekeeping force in Darfur, saying that the AU force had worked in an extremely difficult circumstance.