Are we hours away from yet another bloodbath in Darfur? Sudan's army appears set to launch an attack on Muhajeria, a rebel-held town in South Darfur whose civilian population approaches 50,000. Indeed, as of today, bombing attacks on the outskirts of Muhajeria have already begun. And so the fate of tens of thousands of Darfuri civilians rests with the United Nations-African Union peacekeeping operation, which presently has about 200 personnel deployed in Muhajeria. Wire reports indicate that some 5,000 civilians have fled to the peacekeepers' base in search of security. Sudan's government has forcefully asked the peacekeepers to leave. So far, the U.N. is saying its troops will stay. But will they stand their ground once the fighting starts? And even if they stay, will they prove willing to use force to protect civilians--something U.N. peacekeepers have historically been extremely reluctant to do?
Muhajeria was previously ravaged by Khartoum's forces in October 2007. Here's how The New York Times described what took place then: "[W]itnesses said Sudanese government troops and their allied militias had killed more than 30 civilians, slitting the throats of several men praying at a mosque and shooting a 5-year-old boy in the back as he tried to run away. ... [T]wo columns of uniformed government troops, along with dozens of militiamen not in uniform, surrounded the town around noon on Oct. 8 and stormed the market." Muhajeria subsequently came under the erratic and often tyrannical control of the forces of Minni Minawi, a one-time rebel leader who switched sides in May 2006, signing the Darfur Peace Agreement and allying himself with the Khartoum regime. Several weeks ago, the Justice and Equality Movement--a rebel group that did not sign the agreement and continues to fight Khartoum and its Arab militia allies--seized control of the town from Minawi's forces. The regime regards this as an unacceptable military setback, and is apparently now laying the groundwork for an assault on the town.