Nairobi, Kenya (CNSNews.com) - U.S.-led monitors have started investigating and reporting attacks against non-military targets in the Sudan.
The "civilian protection monitoring teams" are under the supervision of the U.S. State Department and will initially be based in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, and the rebel-held town of Rumbek to the south.
They will monitor and investigate any attacks on non-military targets by either the Sudanese government or the rebel group it's been fighting since the mid-1980s, said the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA).
The teams were set up under an agreement struck between Khartoum and the rebels last March. The proposal was mediated by former U.S. Senator John Danforth, President Bush's special envoy for the Sudanese peace process.
The parties at the time also agreed to set up "zones of tranquility" to allow for emergency humanitarian intervention, and to allow international monitors to investigate incidents of slavery by Muslim traders, allegedly backed by Khartoum.
The SPLA, too, has been accused of human rights violations within the areas it controls.
A main focus of the protection teams will be the issue of air bombardments.
In its military campaign against mainly Christian and animist southerners, Khartoum has been using Antonov planes and, recently, helicopter gun-ships to bomb and attack villages, killing civilians and disrupting aid efforts.
The U.S. charge d'affairs in Khartoum, Jeffrey Millington, told journalists there the civilian protection teams would ultimately help to reduce the suffering of civilians in the war zone.
"The parties had agreed to refrain from targeting or intentionally attacking non-combatants, religious facilities or relief operations in line with the Geneva Accords," he said.
The team, to be divided into two groups, comprises 20 military officers from the U.S., Canada and Ireland and will be headed by retired U.S. Brig.-Gen. Herbert Lloyd.
One group of 14 members will be based in Khartoum and the remaining six will work out of Rumbek. Members will mount routine patrols by road and air.
The results of their investigations will be forwarded to the international community in Khartoum, the Sudanese government, the SPLA, and the media.
Humanitarian relief organizations working in Sudan under the umbrella of the U.N.-led Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) welcomed the arrival of the teams.
OLS spokesperson Martin Dawes said in an interview in Nairobi, Kenya the State Department move was a positive one that would help reduce the incidence of civilian abductions and slavery.
"The initiative will help bring the required attention to the suffering of civilian populations caught up in the war," he said. "It will bring in an element of transparency, which is of help to everyone."
A report prepared by Danforth early this year recommended that humanitarian assistance to the people of Sudan should continue to be a high foreign policy priority for the U.S.
Khartoum's commitment to honor humanitarian agreements and stop exploiting civilians as a war strategy came into focus last Thursday, when it banned U.N. relief flights to two huge regions in southern Sudan, effectively cutting off all air access from Kenya - from where the humanitarian agencies operate.
Dawes said the ban meant there were now no OLS flights leaving a logistics base in northern Kenya.
This was putting the welfare of up to three million people in the war-ravaged area, as well as 600 aid workers, at risk, he said.
The denial of flight access covers all flights to the Eastern Equatoria and Western Equatoria regions for a nine-day period.
The move prompted speculation that government forces were about to launch a major new offensive against the SPLA.
Last weekend, government forces reportedly launched unsuccessful attacks aimed at retaking a strategic Eastern Equatoria town, Torit.
Reports said the troops were repulsed by SPLA fighters about 45 miles from the town, which controls a major road leading to the south's government-held capital, Juba.
After the SPLA captured Torit, the Sudanese government announced early September that it was pulling out of peace talks being held in Kenya.
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