First Vice President Salva Kiir Mayardit, head of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement — a former southern rebel group that now shares power in Khartoum — was quoted by the independent Al-Sudani daily as saying the Sudanese government was incapable of protecting civilians in Darfur, and called on the United Nations to intervene.
"The aggravation of the humanitarian and security situation in Darfur necessitates intervention of international forces to protect civilians from the atrocities of the Janjaweed militias so long as the government is not capable of protecting them," Kiir was quoted as saying at the close of an SPLM politburo meeting held in the southern city of Juba late Friday.
The U.N. wants to take over Darfur peacekeeping from a largely ineffective African Union force — something the Khartoum government has refused.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, in an opinion piece to be published Sunday, urged Sudan to accept the peacekeeping force and push ahead the political process.
"There can be no military solution to the crisis in Darfur," Annan wrote in an item sent to newspapers around the world for publication Sunday, when non-governmental organizations across the globe are planning activities to raise public awareness on Darfur.
"All parties should have understood by now, after so much death and destruction that only a political agreement, in which all stakeholders are fully engaged, can bring real peace to the region," Annan wrote in the item that the U.N. e-mailed to The Associated Press.
Sudan's junior foreign affairs minister, Al-Samani Al-Wasila, told Sawt Al-Arab (Voice of the Arabs) Radio on Saturday that the best thing the international community could do for Sudan was to support the Darfur Peace Agreement instead of planning to deploy international forces. He also stressed that peace must be achieved by the people of Sudan themselves, not outside forces.
The Darfur conflict began in early 2003, when ethnic African tribes revolted against the Khartoum government, which was accused of unleashing Arab militiamen blamed for rapes and killings. At least 200,000 people have died.
The Darfur Peace Agreement, signed in May in Abuja, Nigeria, calls for a cease-fire, disarmament of militias and a protection force for civilians — but does not specify the composition of such a force.
Last month, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution demanding a better-funded, larger and more well-equipped U.N. mission take over Darfur peacekeeping duties from the African Union. But the resolution was unlikely to take effect without the consent of the Sudanese government, something nations including the United States have worked — without success — to acquire.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir says a switch in command would violate the country's sovereignty and has warned that his army would fight any U.N. forces sent to Darfur.
In a meeting in Washington in June, U.S. President George W. Bush pressed Kiir to accept a U.N. force in Darfur. But the SPLM leader sidestepped the issue, saying only that "we are sure that we are going to solve the problem so that we don't hear about rapes and killings in Darfur."
On Friday, Bush said it could be time to send international peacekeepers into Darfur over the objections of the government in Khartoum.
"What you'll hear is, well, the government of Sudan must invite the United Nations in for us to act," Bush said. "Well, there are other alternatives, like passing a U.N. resolution saying we're coming in with a U.N. force in order to save lives."
Kiir's group signed a peace agreement with the Sudanese government in January 2005, laying down its arms after 21 years of civil war — Africa's longest war.
Some see that peace deal as a model for resolving the Darfur conflict. Kiir participated in the Abuja talks that led to the signing the Darfur Peace Agreement, and his organization is believed to have influence over the Darfur rebels, though their conflicts were not related.
The newspaper also quoted SPLM Secretary-General Bagan Amom as calling on al-Bashir's National Congress Party to "accept deployment of U.N. forces in Darfur to avert clashes with the international community."
Amom said the SPLM would "work at convincing the National Congress (Party) to agree to the deployment of U.N. forces in Darfur."
The January 2005 peace accord provided for an autonomous south with its own army, national power and wealth-sharing, religious freedom and a new constitution during a six-year interim period. After those six years, the 10 southern states will hold a referendum on independence.
Sudan has a unity government, in which Kiir now serves as first vice president, in addition to his post as the south's president.
The southern government's Cabinet has 70 percent representation from the SPLM, 15 percent from al-Bashir's northern ruling National Democratic Party and 15 percent from other southern parties.