Despite a peace deal hailed in May 2006 and a subsequent UN Security Council resolution that called for the deployment of a robust peacekeeping force, the latter part of the year saw an intensification of fighting, mass killings and displacements in the Darfur region of Sudan. The year 2006 also witnessed the continued unwillingness of the international community to intervene on behalf of targeted black civilians, whom many observers regard as victims of an active genocide.

In Arabic, Darfur means 'home of the Fur', who are black Nilo Saharan sedentary farmers. The western region is also home to other black tribes, notably the Masalit and the Zaghawa, who are semi-nomadic pastoralists, as well as various Arab camel- and cattle-herding peoples. Worsening drought over the past 25 years created tension between pastoralists and agriculturalists in competition for land and was intentionally exacerbated by the Sudanese government. Its divide-and-rule tactics injected mounting frictions with racism, and spurred nomadic Arabs to band together to form Janjaweed militias that targeted black Africans. In response, beginning in the 1980s, the Fur, Masalit, Zaghawa, and other, smaller ethnic groups began forming their own militias. Whereas the North-South war in Sudan that lasted from 1983 to 2005 pitted Arab Muslims in the North against black Christians and animists in the South, all groups involved in the Darfur conflict are predominantly Muslim.

In early 2003, Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa militias engaged in skirmishes with government forces. Following initial setbacks for the Sudanese army, then still preoccupied with fighting in southern Sudan, the government turned to the Janjaweed. Heavily armed by Khartoum and backed by the Sudanese air force, the Janjaweed launched devastating assaults against the opposing militias over the course of 2003 and 2004. It also targeted Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa villages, killing thousands and displacing tens of thousands within Darfur and across the Sudanese border to Chad. In February 2004, the International Association of Genocide Scholars labelled the atrocities in Darfur 'genocide', followed unanimously in July 2004 by the United States Congress.

Although the UN and many governments sought to avoid this term – and the associated obligation to intervene in accordance with the 1948 Genocide Convention – those who did adopt the finding, including US President Bush in September 2004, proved equally unwilling to take effective action. Instead, the international community vested its hopes in a small, under-funded and under-equipped African Union (AU) peacekeeping force that first deployed in August 2004. By September 2005, the AU force had increased to 7,000 soldiers but, despite its best efforts, was still ill-trained, ill-equipped and incapable of protecting Darfuri civilians under attack in an area the size of France.

A January 2005 peace agreement between Khartoum and south Sudanese rebels envisioned power-sharing and broad autonomy for the South, but excluded Sudan's other disgruntled regions, including Darfur. As the death toll in Darfur rose into the hundreds of thousands, and atrocities such as the systematic rape of black Darfuri women by Janjaweed forces became well established, the International Criminal Court announced in June 2005 that it was launching an investigation into alleged violations of international humanitarian law.

The international community touted as a major breakthrough an AU-brokered peace agreement for Darfur signed in Abuja, Nigeria, in May 2006. Yet only one of the three main Darfuri rebel factions – that most closely aligned with the Zaghawa people – signed the agreement with Khartoum. Absent the agreement of the other two main factions, for the most part closely aligned with Fur and Masalit tribes, violence intensified in the weeks following the agreement.

With increased violence came new calls for the UN to take over peacekeeping responsibilities in Darfur, notably by AU heads of state meeting in July 2006. Sudan's leader, Omar Bashir, rejected the idea out of hand, and that same month the Sudanese air force resumed attacks on Darfuri villages for the first time since the May peace agreement.

At the end of July, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan proposed deployment of a UN force of 24,000 and, on 31 August, the Security Council approved a smaller but robust force of 17,000. However, at the insistence of China and Russia – tied to Khartoum through oil development and weapons trafficking – deployment of the force hinged on Sudan's invitation. By November 2006, President Bashir had repeatedly made it clear that no such invitation would be forthcoming. Instead the AU agreed to extend its force through the end of the year.

In October a former Janjaweed fighter confirmed to the BBC that the militias were under direct control of the Khartoum government, which had directly ordered the killing and raping of civilians. He alleged that Sudanese Interior Minister Abdul Rahim Muhammad Hussein frequently conveyed such instructions personally to Janjaweed fighters.

Minority Rights Group International (MRG) released a report in October 2006, which found that the catastrophe in Darfur could have been prevented if early warning signals had been recognized and acted on. The report said that instead the UN and its member states had repeated in Darfur many of the same failings as in their response to the 1994 Rwandan genocide. In particular, policy-makers had failed to take account of Khartoum's long-standing efforts to foment ethnic division in the region.

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