Khartoum: Authorities in Sudan are stepping up efforts to force the UN-African Union mission in Darfur to leave, threatening the supply of vital humanitarian aid deliveries.
UNAMID deployed to Darfur in 2007, its nearly 16,000 peacekeepers mandated to protect civilians and secure humanitarian assistance across an area the size of France.
The arid western region of Sudan has been wracked by violence since the start of a rebel uprising in 2003, with more than 300,000 dead and the government accused of war crimes in its fight against the insurgents.
Sudan`s government "has never tried to hide its hostility to the presence of foreign troops on its territory," said International Crisis Group analyst Jerome Tubiana.
But UNAMID`s attempts to investigate a report that Sudanese troops raped 200 women and girls in the village of Tabit seem to have pushed authorities over the edge, and rhetoric against the peacekeepers has ramped up.
And with the UN and AU hardly rushing to the mission`s defence, "there is no reason for Khartoum not to push the challenge further, even going so far as to envisage the expulsion of UNAMID," Tubiana said.
The mission was already facing problems after a UN report in October criticised it for under-reporting crimes in Darfur.
Pressure has grown in recent weeks, with President Omar al-Bashir calling UNAMID a "burden" and the foreign ministry accusing its personnel of committing abuses, including rapes, and of backing rebels.
The Sudanese government has repeatedly denied the rape allegations, and stressed that its desire for the mission`s end predates the controversy.
It made a formal request to the UN Security Council on November 11 for UNAMID to start to form an exit strategy, but foreign ministry spokesman Yousif al-Kordofani said the issue had been raised months ago and the government was "very dissatisfied" with the mission`s work. UNAMID`s press office told a news agency the request was "part of routine discussions that have been going on for quite some time".
Kordofani said the mission`s troops had committed abuses "including sometimes providing supplies to the rebel movements" and that Sudan`s military was able to protect civilians in the region.
"The Sudanese armed forces are in Darfur, protecting the people of Darfur and protecting UNAMID," he told a news agency, adding that the government was looking for the mission`s gradual departure, not to expel it.
In the meantime, the government is intent on making the mission`s life difficult, a source in Khartoum familiar with the security situation said.
"It was known from the beginning that theirs was a difficult mission, but this risks making it more so," the source said.
The government already ordered UNAMID to shut its human rights office in Khartoum on November 26 and could take further moves.
UNAMID relies on cooperation with the authorities to receive supplies and equipment, as well as for entry visas for personnel coming to work in the country.
"They have already had problems with delays for visas, and they now risk having problems getting their supplies delivered," the source said.
The interference could start to have real consequences.
UNAMID forces regularly provide escort to UN agencies like the World Food Programme, which supports nearly three and a half million people in Darfur.
Some aid groups refuse to travel without a UN escort and hindering the mission`s movements could hurt other deliveries.
Rising criminality and disputes between Arab tribes over resources have also seen parts of Darfur sink further into lawlessness. In July, a staffer from the International Organization for Migration was kidnapped and held for 20 days.
For some residents of camps set up for those forced from their homes by the conflict, the prospect of the mission`s departure is deeply worrying, even if UNAMID lacks the strength to protect them fully.
"UNAMID is very important because they secure the camps," Ibrahim, a teacher in Zamzam camp in North Darfur, told a news agency by telephone.
"Even though UNAMID are here some of our people came under attack. We cannot imagine how the situation would be if UNAMID leaves."