Blair threatens force over Darfur

Julian Borger
London Guardian
Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Tony Blair is pushing the United Nations to declare a no-fly zone over Darfur, enforced if necessary by the bombing of Sudanese military airfields used for raids on the province, the Guardian has learned.
The controversial initiative comes as a classified new report by a UN panel of experts alleges Sudan has violated UN resolutions by moving arms into Darfur, conducting overflights and disguising its military planes as UN humanitarian aircraft.

Mr Blair has been pushing for much tougher international action against Sudan since President Omar Hassan al-Bashir reneged earlier this month on last November's agreement to allow UN peacekeepers into Darfur to protect civilians.

Over 200,000 have been killed in the course of a counter-insurgency by government forces and allied Janjaweed militia, and more than 10 times that number forced to flee their homes. Humanitarian supplies to the millions of refugees in the area are tenuous and threatened by continuing violence on the Sudan-Chad border.
Talks are under way in the UN security council over a package of sanctions being pushed by Britain and the US, which includes a comprehensive arms embargo and the freezing assets of Sudanese leaders implicated in the Darfur ethnic cleansing.

Speaking in Berlin on Sunday, Mr Blair described the situation in Darfur as "intolerable" and said: "We need to consider a no-fly zone to prevent the use of Sudanese air power against refugees and displaced people."

According to Downing Street, he is pushing for a no-fly zone to be passed at the same time as the new sanctions package, in the form of a 'Chapter 7' security council resolution, allowing the use of force.

"The prime minister believes we can do them together," said a Downing Street source. "There could be an agreement in the security council that there could be a no-fly zone. If the Sudanese government broke that agreement there would have to be consequences."

The imposition of a no-fly zone, of the kind employed over Iraq before the invasion, has been widely dismissed by military experts as impractical over an area as large as Darfur, which is the size of France. But the Guardian has learned that US and British officials are considering a cheaper alternative: punitive air strikes against Sudanese air force bases if Khartoum violated the no-fly zone.

The example being considered is the Ivory Coast, where the French wiped out much of the Ivorian air force while its planes and helicopters were sitting on the tarmac, in November 2004. The air strikes were in reprisal for the deaths of nine French peacekeepers in an Ivorian raid on rebel-held areas in the north.

Mr Blair's push for tough action is likely to be given a considerable boost by a new, still classified, report in New York by the UN's panel of experts on Sudan. According to an official who has seen the report, the panel found evidence that the Sudanese government was continuing to ship arms into Darfur and conduct air force operations over the province in violation of UN security council resolution 1591, passed two years ago.

The investigators also spotted an Antonov-26 aircraft painted white and parked at a military airport. "The panel noted with concern that the plane had a UN logo painted on the top of its left wing," a UN internal document said. "It was parked on the military apron next to rows of bombs."

The panel spotted another white Antonov at a military airport on March 1. The panel is "investigating the role of both aircraft in aerial bombing" of Darfur, the document said.

Downing Street has stressed that Mr Blair would prefer to act in concert with other security council members, but Sudan's defenders at the UN, led by China, are likely to resist any resolution backed by force. Asked whether the UK and the US would attempt to rally a 'coalition of the willing' against Sudan in the event of a security council impasse, a Downing Street source said: "We'd have to judge that if we failed." The initiative for such tough action is being driven by Mr Blair himself, often in the face of scepticism in the foreign office and ministry of defence.

The MoD in particular distanced itself from the idea yesterday, and said there were no plans for British forces to get involved.

"There are absolutely no plans for any UK military action at all in Sudan or the Darfur region of Sudan," a senior British defence source said yesterday, adding: "There are no plans on the radar".

But British military officials did not exclude the possibility that the US had contingency plans to strike Sudanese airfields.

Mr Blair is said by his aides to believe the ethnic cleansing to be a defining moral issue.

"It's very important [President Bashir] doesn't believe he can renege on his agreements. We can't allow the status quo to be locked in after the ethnic cleansing there," a Downing Street source said.

"The prime minister believes in a values-driven foreign policy and believes you have to evenly apply those values to have any credibility. He sees Darfur as a test of the international community's commitment to its own values."

The prospect of a no-fly zone was welcomed by the independent International Crisis Group thinktank yesterday. "The government in Khartoum is using its air force to bomb its own civilians and to resupply its troops and allied militias killing its own people. That's a pretty good reason for a no-fly zone," Andrew Stroehlein, the ICG's media director, said.

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