NATO has decided to airlift African peacekeeping troops into Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region, the first mission for the Atlantic alliance in Africa, senior NATO and U.S. officials said Wednesday.
The decision follows months of stalemate in European capitals over whether the North Atlantic Treaty Organization should get involved in Darfur, where, according to United Nations estimates, more than 180,000 people have died from disease, hunger and fighting since a civil war began in 2003.
A senior Pentagon official confirmed that U.S. airplanes would participate in the NATO mission, which could begin within weeks. The timing of the first airlift is still being worked out, but NATO is expected to officially endorse the mission today at the alliance’s annual gathering of defense ministers.
“I don’t know when precisely we will be moving the troops,” said a senior NATO diplomat, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity before the decision was announced.
The two officials said NATO would also provide logistical support to help run a headquarters for the African peacekeeping operation.
The African Union has nearly 2,300 troops in Darfur, in western Sudan, trying to maintain a fragile cease-fire. But the AU hopes to add 5,000 troops, and in April asked NATO and the European Union for help flying peacekeepers into Darfur.
The AU’s request set off a turf battle over who should provide the assistance. The United States advocated a mission under NATO, whereas other nations, notably France, argued that it should operate independently of the United States and be conducted under an EU flag.
Now officials say the two organizations will run separate airlift operations but will coordinate with each other.
Before flying to Brussels to attend the ministerial conference, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Wednesday toured NATO’s Joint Warfare Center in Stavanger, Norway, a vast military complex built in a mountain.
The NATO base in Norway’s southwest is the principal training site for officers deploying to missions in Afghanistan and the Balkans. Since last year, 50 senior Iraqi officers and civilian defense officials have also been trained there.
During a joint news conference with Norwegian Defense Minister Kristin Krohn Devold, Rumsfeld did not say whether the training program for Iraqis would be expanded.
The Pentagon has made training Iraqis the focus of its efforts in Iraq since the nation’s Jan. 30 National Assembly election. On Wednesday, Rumsfeld said the Pentagon had made steady progress in training and equipping Iraqi troops, but “there’s still a way to go.”
Rumsfeld and Devold also signed a deal re-authorizing the Marine Corps to position vehicles, weapons and ammunition in Norway for future Marine deployments around the world.
The Pentagon has stockpiled military equipment in the Scandinavian country since the Cold War, when the U.S. had contingency plans to reinforce Norway’s small military in the event of a Soviet attack.
Rumsfeld was asked during the news conference about recent controversies over the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He defended treatment of detainees at the prison and said the Bush administration was not giving any consideration to shutting the facility.
Rumsfeld said that the prison was “unfortunately something that’s necessary in the world we’re living in,” and that the treatment of detainees was both humane and professional.