QINYANG, China, Sep 15 (Reuters) China today showed off the readiness of its first engineering troops set to go to Sudan's Darfur region to support a UN peacekeeping mission, deflecting criticism of its stance towards the conflict there.
In a rare opening of the doors of one of its bases to foreign journalists, the People's Liberation Army displayed the skills of the 315-strong engineering unit that will start being deployed to the region early next month.
After a brief news conference inside the unit's dusty training base in central Henan province, the troops rushed, chanting, to simulate setting up a bridge, building a road and providing first aid to the injured -- some of the core activities of their mission.
They will go to Darfur ahead of the expected deployment of 26,000 United Nations and African Union troops and police approved by the UN Security Council in July.
''The reason for us to send peacekeeping troops is not to change the way that the West looks at us,'' Dai Shaoan, Deputy Director-General of the Defence Ministry's Office of Peacekeeping Affairs, told reporters inside the base, situated outside the city of Qinyang.
''We want to make our own contribution to the maintenance of world peace.'' International experts estimate that some 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million have been driven from their homes during 4-1/2 years of fighting in Darfur. Sudan puts the death toll from the conflict at just 9,000.
Rights groups have accused China, which has large investments in the Sudanese oil industry, of selling Khartoum arms used in Darfur and of watering down UN Security Council resolutions against Sudan.
''THIN LOGIC'' Dai said that blaming China for the problems in Darfur because of China's relationship with Sudan was based on ''very thin logic''.
''For example, if you and I have a very good relationship, it's not right for me to blame you or place responsibility on you if my own siblings are having disagreements or problems amongst themselves,'' he said.
Shangguan Linhong, commander of the engineering unit, beamed with pride about the preparations his men had endured -- besides the requisite physical training and basic English study, they had to do so wearing many layers of clothing to simulate the heat they will experience in Darfur, he said.
China has sent close to 8,100 military personnel on 17 UN peacekeeping missions since 1990; the defence ministry said in a statement that nearly 1,650 Chinese officers and troops were currently serving in UN missions, including in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Lebanon and southern Sudan.
Dai said that China would take a ''positive attitude'' towards any request by the UN that it follow up on the engineering unit by sending peacekeeping troops to Darfur.
For now, the engineering unit was geared up to serve in a supporting role by building barracks, roads and helipads.
Asked how he felt about going to Darfur to build infrastructure that could easily end up being destroyed in the conflict, Zhao Huafeng, one of the unit's troops, said: ''I'm sure we'll be able to build them again.'' REUTERS GL PM2045