(United Nations) Against the backdrop of a deepening political crisis in Sudan, the United Nations Security Council on Thursday agreed to delay a drawdown of UN peacekeepers from the country’s troubled western province of Darfur. The UN’s top body had been preparing to cut back the so-called United Nations-African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) from its current size of almost 5,600 blue helmets to 4,050 before the country was hit by a wave of protests earlier this year.

That drawdown was no longer possible in the wake of the ouster of long-time president Omar al-Bashir and the switch to a Transitional Military Council (TMC) that includes the leader of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group, diplomats said.

“In order to resume the transition from peacekeeping to peacebuilding we must see progress, and in particular the Rapid Support Forces must withdraw from all former UNAMID team sites so they can be used for civilian purposes,” Britain’s deputy UN ambassador Jonathan Allen says.

“All of this should take place alongside a transition to a legitimate civilian-led government – a government which is accepted by the people of Sudan and therefore the wider international community. The RSF is led by Mohamed Dagalo, also known as Hemeti, who is deputy head of Sudan’s TMC, which assumed control after al-Bashir was ousted and detained. The RSF grew out of the Janjaweed militias that are accused of atrocities in Darfur,” he explains. “The UN’s top body voted unanimously for the document, drafted by Germany and Britain, to “extend, temporarily and exceptionally” its blue-helmet operation at its current size until October 31 “in order to maintain the mission’s self-protection capacities”.

Members also called on the African Union and UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres to study the latest developments in Sudan and report back about scaling back UNAMID by the end of September. France’s ambassador to the UN, Francois Delattre, urged Sudan’s military leaders to hand power to civilians as soon as possible, condemning the violence against protestors and noted how Darfur remained unstable. He explains:

We are deeply concerned by the increasing tensions and acts of violence in Darfur, and call on the international community to do everything in its power to ensure that this region, which remains very fragile, does not re-ignite.

“UNAMID therefore retains an important role. It is essential that the mission is temporarily maintained to ensure the protection of civilians and the reporting of violations of human rights, to promote the settlement of inter-community conflicts and facilitate humanitarian access.”

UNAMID has been deployed in Darfur since 2007, with a mandate to tackle violence against villagers amid fighting that saw the International Criminal Court issue an arrest warrant for al-Bashir on charges of genocide and war crimes. Al-Bashir is accused of masterminding attacks by Janjaweed militias and atrocities in Darfur, after mainly non-Arab rebels took up arms in 2003 against the Arab-led government in Khartoum, accusing it of discrimination.

As diplomats met in New York, Sudan’s political crisis was spiralling. This week, opposition activists announced plans for more demonstrations after the country’s ruling generals rejected an Ethiopian plan for a transitional government. On Thursday, security forces reportedly fired tear gas to break up dozens of students protesting against the ruling military council at a financial academy in the centre of Sudan’s capital, Khartoum.

Sudan’s military chiefs and an opposition coalition have been grappling for weeks over what form a transitional government should take, after the generals ousted and detained long-time president al-Bashir on April 11. Talks between the two sides collapsed after security forces — understood to be Hemeti’s RSF — stormed a protest sit-in on June 3, killing dozens of demonstrators and prompting outrage from world powers. Activists who led months of protests against al-Bashir have called for a million-strong march on Sunday to try to revive street pressure on the military council and call for it to cede power to civilians.