UN Chief Encouraged by Darfur Peace Efforts

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expressing optimism that Sudan will soon accept the presence of attack helicopters in a robust peacekeeping presence in Darfur. VOA's Peter Heinlein reports the U.N. chief also called for the immediate release of a British journalist kidnapped in Gaza.

Mr. Ban says he is encouraged by diplomatic efforts to win Sudanese approval of a dramatically strengthened peacekeeping force in its violence-wracked Darfur region. He said agreement has been reached on all issues except whether helicopter gunships will be included to support 2,200 heavily armed U.N. peacekeepers that would back up the 7,000 African Union troops already on the ground.

Mr. Ban described the remaining issue as simply a "misunderstanding."

"The remaining point is on this gunship helicopter. Seems to be misunderstanding on Sudanese government on this equipment," he said. "This is not for any offensive purpose. This peacekeeping is by definition peacekeeping operations, it is not for any offensive, but when you deploy troops you need to have mobility with some capacity of deterrence. This is just standard equipment for which they should have no concern."

The helicopters are part of the second phase of a three stage package Sudan agreed to last November, but Sudanese leaders have since backtracked on core elements of the deal.

In his comments to reporters, Mr. Ban also joined in the calls for the release of British Broadcasting Corporation journalist Alan Johnston who was abducted last month in Gaza. The U.N. chief said freedom of the press must be protected "as a matter of principle."

"I have been closely following this issue, the abduction of BBC journalist Alan Johnston," he added. "I am deeply concerned. Even after one month of his abduction, he has not been released. His coverage of Palestinian issues has earned a great reputation worldwide. Freedom of coverage, as well as freedom of the press, should be protected as a matter of principle. I sincerely hope that those who are responsible for this abduction should release him unconditionally and immediately."

On another subject, Mr. Ban said he was "very much concerned" by the lack of progress in establishing a special tribunal on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. He said he had spoken by phone Tuesday with current Prime Minister Fuad Siniora as part of his efforts to promote a national reconciliation process in Lebanon.

Mr. Ban's office has confirmed that he plans to travel to the region later this month. His itinerary includes a stop in Damascus for a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.