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HEIDELBERG, Germany — NATO moved closer this week to its first mission in Africa, training troops to support an African Union peacekeeping effort in the besieged Darfur region of Sudan.

The NATO troops will work primarily to airlift 5,000 African peacekeepers to the remote region in western Sudan, where one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises has been ongoing for more than two years. More than 2 million people have been displaced and at least 180,000 have died in what the U.S. government has described as a genocide.

NATO troops also will train African troops in running a large-scale peacekeeping operation, running a multinational military headquarters and managing intelligence. The number of NATO troops to be sent on the mission had not yet been decided.

“We’re not talking about any significant number of NATO troops,” said James Appathurai, an alliance spokesman. “What we’re talking about is helping the African Union get their troops into Darfur. There will be no NATO combat forces of any kind in Darfur.”

The NATO troops primarily will work out of at the African Union’s Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Training this week in Heidelberg consisted of some 20 NATO troops being briefed on the region, the conflict and the composition of the African Union forces. The training was closed to journalists.

“We want to keep a low profile,” Appathurai said. “We don’t need or want to draw attention to our role.”

The training follows NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer’s statement earlier this month that the alliance was set to respond to the African Union request to help expand its peacekeeping mission. African Union troops in Darfur are planned to go from the current 2,200 to 7,700 by September.

According to a Sudan Tribune report last month, Sudan officials agreed to NATO’s involvement only if there were “no troops other than Africans” on Darfur soil. The Sudanese president last year said international concern over Darfur was “actually a targeting of the Islamic state in Sudan.”

Additionally, although the mission has the support of the United States, French officials have said they preferred that the European Union lend support to the African peacekeepers. The EU also is planning to transport African troops to Darfur and assist in training African Union troops.

Violence broke out in the region in early 2003 when rebels alleging mistreatment by the government attacked government forces and facilities. The Sudan government responded with aerial bombardment and, according to most sources, recruiting and supporting an “Arab” militia called the Janjaweed, a nomadic group long at odds with the African non-Arab farmers.

The Janjaweed have attacked, burned and looted non-Arab villages and systematically killed and raped civilians, according to the United Nations. Millions of Sudanese villagers live now in refugee camps in Chad and Sudan, with some Sudanese camps coming under raids and attacks.

Last year, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives passed a joint resolution declaring the armed conflict in Darfur to be genocide and called on the Bush administration to lead an international effort to stop it. The administration has subsequently been criticized for forming a “close intelligence partnership” with the Sudanese government and meeting in Washington, D.C. with a Sudanese general said to have helped train the Janjaweed.

The United Nations has stopped short of calling the Darfur killings genocide, a term that can trigger international intervention, and has instead said serious human rights violations have occurred there.

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
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