UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - U.N. peacekeepers in Sudan stayed holed up in their barracks for two days during violent clashes between northern and southern forces that sparked the flight of tens of thousands of civilians, diplomats told Reuters.
The United Nations is investigating actions of Zambian peacekeepers assigned to regularly patrol and protect civilians in Abyei in the disputed region between south and north Sudan, diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“They locked themselves up for a couple of days,” a U.N. diplomat said. “They were then instructed to come out of their barracks and start patrolling, but they had already lost a crucial 48 hours.”
A south Sudan official said nearly 100 civilians have been killed in recent weeks in the Abyei region.
Diplomats described the peacekeepers’ failure to maintain a visible presence in Abyei during a period of heightened conflict — which they said is crucial for deterring attacks — in disparaging terms. One senior diplomat described their performance as “pathetic.” Another said it was “terrible.”
A spokesman for the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) said a senior military official was heading to Sudan’s Abyei region, an oil-rich zone that both the north and south would like to control once the country splits on July 9, to assess the performance of U.N. troops deployed there.
“DPKO dispatched its top military official to Abyei to assess the peacekeepers’ response and report back on lessons learned,” DPKO spokesman Michel Bonnardeaux told Reuters.
Diplomats said that U.N. officials in New York were livid when they found out the Zambian troops had essentially gone into hiding when the violence escalated.
Zambia’s U.N. mission did not respond to a request for comment.
U.N. diplomats said the poor performance of blue-helmeted troops at a time when the fragile peace deal between north and south Sudan is in danger of unraveling highlights a serious problem with U.N. peacekeeping — that the world body often lacks troops able to handle heavy conflict.
The Abyei incident occurred during a spate of violence that began escalating on May 19 when south Sudanese militia attacked north Sudanese soldiers and U.N. peacekeepers.
Days after the May 19 skirmish, militias and troops from the north occupied the region, prompting the flight of some 80,000 people, according to south Sudanese estimates.
Diplomats said Haile Menkerios, chief of the U.N Missions in Sudan (UNMIS), also made clear to members of the U.N. Security Council recently that he was not pleased with the performance of the Zambians in Abyei.
Khartoum’s U.N. Ambassador Daffa-Alla Elhag Ali Osman told Reuters that twice when northern Sudanese troops were attacked by southern forces, UNMIS “didn’t do anything.”
The U.N. Security Council demanded on Friday an end to the northern occupation of Abyei, which has sparked fears of a renewed civil war.
Ethiopia has indicated that it would be willing to consider sending Ethiopian troops to the region if both Khartoum and Juba agreed to their deployment.
This is not the first time that Zambian troops have failed to distinguish themselves in Abyei.
In 2008, Zambian peacekeepers refused to allow civilians caught in the cross-fire of a heavy firefight between northern and southern Sudanese soldiers into the UNMIS compound.
The civilians forced their way inside, but the incident sparked a similar internal U.N. “lessons learned” probe.
Two diplomats said Menkerios made the point to members of the Security Council that U.N. peacekeepers in the field are too often under-equipped, underfunded and undertrained.
“It was a wake-up call to the council that we need to get better troops,” a diplomat said.
Sudan is not the only place where U.N. peacekeepers have been accused of leaving civilians in the lurch. Such allegations were widely raised in the 1990s about how U.N. troops behaved in the conflicts in Rwanda and the Balkans.
U.N. peacekeeping operations generally rely on soldiers from the developing world, who often need to be trained, equipped, sometimes even clothed before they can become functioning peacekeepers.
“The Americans and Europeans don’t want to send their troops into the field, and yet they’re always demanding robust implementation of mandates,” a U.N. envoy said. “The blue helmets could often use a few really professional units from North America or Europe in their operations. Where are they?”
Editing by Sandra Maler and Vicki Allen