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At the African Union summit next week, African leaders should put the protection of civilians in Darfur at the top of their agenda, Human Rights Watch said today. Leaders of the pan-African organization’s 53 member states will meet in Sirte, Libya on July 4-5.

“The African Union deserves credit for leading the efforts to restore security to war-torn Darfur,” said Georgette Gagnon, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “More African Union forces need to be deployed across Darfur to protect civilians and help reverse ethnic cleansing.”

Today, the African Union will begin its second phase of deploying troops to Darfur. Plans are well underway to increase AU forces in Darfur from some 2,700 to 7,700 by the end of September.

Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa and Kenya are contributing the additional forces, including an estimated 4,000 troops and 1,000 civilian police. The European Union, NATO and the United Nations—along with countries including the United States, France, Canada and Britain—are providing the technical, financial and logistical support to deploy these AU forces.

“There is no time to waste,” said Gagnon. “Violence and insecurity persist in Darfur, especially in areas where there are no African Union troops.”

Human Rights Watch called on the African Union to ensure that its forces in Darfur are deployed speedily in many more villages and small towns throughout the region, which is roughly the size of France.

AU troops should robustly protect civilians and proactively patrol and secure the main roads for humanitarian, commercial and civilian traffic. These forces should also do what is necessary to establish a safe and secure environment that will allow for the safe and voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons.

Once the 7,700 AU forces are deployed, the African Union, NATO, the United Nations and other donors should move as quickly as possible to the next phase of deployment, which will boost the level of AU forces to 12,300 under current plans.

“The status quo in Darfur is unacceptable. The inability of two million people to return home guarantees ongoing instability and retribution,” Gagnon said. “This current situation rewards the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing and war crimes.”

Human Rights Watch called on the African Union, the United Nations, NATO, the European Union and other concerned members of the international community to continue their recently established partnership to provide protection and freedom of movement in Darfur. These efforts must ensure that two million displaced Darfurians can return home and, in a region where conflict has made 3.5 million people depend on food aid, can cultivate their land in safety.

Donors must continue to provide the needed logistics and financial assistance to the African Union Mission in Sudan. Human Rights Watch urged members of the African Union—particularly Nigeria, South Africa, Rwanda, Senegal and Kenya—to maintain a high level of troop and police deployment until the crisis in Darfur is over.

“Countries like Nigeria, Rwanda and South Africa have shown leadership in contributing to the AU mission in Darfur,” said Gagnon. “Other African countries should follow their example by sending troops, military observers and police.”

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