A U.N. review of peacekeepers in Sudan's western Darfur region recommends a cut of more than 3,200 troops and nearly 800 police because security has improved in some parts of the troubled area, the U.N. peacekeeping chief said on Thursday.
Mainly African tribes took up arms against the government in Khartoum in 2003, complaining of political and economic marginalisation. African Union peacekeepers were deployed in 2006 and replaced in 2008 by a joint African Union-U.N. force.
Violence has ebbed from the 2003-04 peak but fighting still occurs as several rounds of peace talks have failed, hampered by rebel divisions and ongoing military operations.
U.N. undersecretary-general Herve Ladsous told the U.N. Security Council that troops should be cut by 3,260, about 16 percent of the authorized force, and police should be reduced by 770, about a 12-percent decrease.
"The proposed reduction in infantry is due mainly to improvements in security along the Chad-Darfur border and far northern Darfur following rapprochements between Sudan and Chad and between Sudan and Libya," Ladsous said.
He said that half the force's infantry companies would be redeployed "from areas where the security threat has reduced to potential flashpoints and areas of higher threat" - mainly a relatively populous band that runs east-west through Darfur.
The cut in police was needed, Ladsous said, after it was found that police patrols were overlapping with military patrols.
Ladsous said the reductions would be made over 18 months and would cut $76.1 million from the mission's $1.5 billion budget in the 2012-13 financial year. The changes would save the mission $135 million a year from then.
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said she did not "sense any broad-based concern or skepticism" among members in response to the proposed cuts. The U.N. Council is due to renew the mandate for the Darfur mission and approve the cuts by the end of July.
"The way we understand the proposals by DPKO (U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations) is not to really think of it as a downsizing, but rather a right-sizing," Rice said. "(They are) trying to align the personnel, resources and equipment on the ground with the needs as they are today."
"From the U.S. point of view we're hardly sanguine about the security situation, we see that the violence is escalating in four or five regions of Darfur ... . This remains a very insecure, very serious situation," she said.
Sudan's U.N. Ambassador Daffa-Alla Elhag Ali Osman backed the recommended cuts in the Darfur peacekeeping force.
"It's very encouraging. It reflects the peace process which came as a result of the engagement of the government of Sudan with those who signed the Doha agreement," he said.
In July Sudan signed a Qatar-sponsored peace agreement with the Liberation and Justice Movement (LJM), an umbrella organization of small rebel groups. But the Justice Equality Movement and other larger insurgent groups refused to join.
The United Nations has estimated that around 300,000 people have died during the conflict in Darfur and some 2 million people been displaced. Khartoum puts the death toll at 10,000.