By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Khartoum has so far declined to issue visas for senior U.S., British and French diplomats hoping to conduct a fact-finding mission in Sudan's conflict-torn Darfur region, U.N. diplomatic sources told Reuters on Tuesday.
They said Sudan's failure to grant visas to the deputy U.N. ambassadors of the three veto-wielding Western powers was a further sign of Khartoum's increasingly confrontational approach to the United Nations and the West over the U.N.-African Union mission to Darfur (UNAMID), which Khartoum wants shut.
The sources said the diplomats wanted to visit Darfur in January, and that British Deputy U.N. Ambassador Peter Wilson was intending to lead the trip. At that time UNAMID was under fire for its poor performance and withholding of information about violence against civilians and peacekeepers in Darfur.
Khartoum was obstructing a U.N. investigation of an alleged mass rape in Darfur and had expelled several senior U.N. officials from Sudan.
The other two senior diplomats hoping to go to Darfur are David Pressman of the United States and Alexis Lamek of France.
"Not permitting ambassadors from the United States, Britain and France to go to Darfur shows how uncooperative the government of Sudan has become," a diplomatic source said on condition of anonymity. "Khartoum wants UNAMID out of Sudan."
The trio still hopes the visit will occur, diplomats say, as violence in Darfur increases and Khartoum demands UNAMID's withdrawal. Sudan's U.N. mission did not respond to requests for comment.
A British diplomat confirmed Wilson had planned to lead the trip and said Britain had a strong interest in improving UNAMID and gauging the conditions for the mission's roughly 19,000 peacekeepers.
Diplomats said that in negotiations with the United Nations on an exit strategy for UNAMID, Khartoum is demanding that 15,000 blue-helmeted peacekeepers be withdrawn by the end of 2015. Washington rejects that demand.
Max Gleischman, spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, said UNAMID still has important role to play in protecting civilians.
"We vehemently oppose any effort to draw down or close the mission prematurely," he said. "We have seen more displacement in Darfur in the last year than in the history of the decade-long conflict."
He added that Khartoum continued to obstruct UNAMID's work on a daily basis.
Law and order have collapsed in much of Darfur, where mainly non-Arab rebels took up arms in 2003 against the Arab-led government in Khartoum, accusing it of discrimination.
(Reporting by Louis Charbonneau)