Campaigners welcome extension of African Union force in Darfur

 Faith groups and aid agencies have welcomed the decision of the African Union (AU) to extend the mandate of its peacekeeping force in Darfur, Sudan, until the end of the year. The decision was announced in New York after a meeting of the African heads of state at the UN. "This is good news for the millions of displaced people in Darfur,' said Judith Melby, Christian Aid's Africa specialist. 'But it is only a first step. For the force to be truly effective it must receive more troops, more logistical support and a stronger mandate." The AU force had been scheduled to leave at the end of September. This had led to fears that the situation in Darfur would deteriorate sharply. Already much of the region is off limits to humanitarian agencies. The violence has increased since a peace deal was reached between the government and one of the three main rebel groups in May 2006. "The US and the UK are guarantors of the Darfur Peace Agreement and they must play their part in finding a solution to this bloody conflict,' said Judith. 'In the first instance the AU force must be helped to be a viable peacekeeping force. "The fate of millions of people depends on the force. It is a terrible indictment of the international community that, after the fanfare over the signing of the peace agreement, things have gone from bad to worse." Over recent weeks there have been reports that the government of Sudan has launched a new offensive to regain control of the region. Many fear that Sudan's leader Omar al-Bashir is determined to have a military solution to the conflict. More than 200,000 people have already died since the outbreak of the rebellion in early 2003. The UN Security Council has passed a resolution calling for the deployment some 20,000 'blue helmet' troops to replace the AU force. But Khartoum has rejected the initiative. "A year ago the member states of the UN committed themselves to a 'collective responsibility to protect' the peoples of the world even if this meant stepping in to protect them from their own government. The people of Darfur need and deserve protection," said Judith Melby. On Sunday Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor was among leaders from the Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths who took part in prayers for peace outside Downing Street yesterday, as part of an international day of action for Darfur. campaigners in cities and towns around the world held vigils calling for greater support for the people of Darfur.

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