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Powell Disappointed Over New Reports of Refugee Evictions in Darfur

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell Wednesday expressed disappointment over reports Sudanese government troops have again forcibly ousted refugees from a camp in the western Darfur region. The action came only a day after Sudan and Darfur rebels signed two agreements in Nigeria.

Mr. Powell's comments reflect concern among Africa policy experts here that the security situation in Darfur has deteriorated in recent days despite strides being made in the Nigerian-hosted talks between the Khartoum government and Darfur rebels.

The State Department said it had received reports that Sudanese security forces Wednesday tried to forcibly relocate refugees from a camp complex at El-Geer in the southern part of Darfur for the second time in less than a week.

At a joint press appearance with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Secretary Powell said he was disappointed to see a recurrence of such reports, given that he had complained directly to Sudanese First Vice President Ali Osman Taha about the first incident last week.

"I spoke to Vice President Taha over the weekend and specifically said that this kind of behavior was unacceptable, we couldn't understand it, and it was not helping us reach a solution," said Mr. Powell. "And so we'll be pursuing this with the Sudanese and I'm sure it will be discussed within the [U.N.] Security Council as well."

Mr. Powell described as a little bit of progress agreements reached between the Sudanese government and Darfur rebels in the Nigerian capital Abuja Tuesday.

One would assure free access to Darfur by humanitarian relief groups and the other would create a no-fly zone over Darfur, a significant advance since Sudanese government planes have been providing air support for Arab Janjaweed militiamen attacking rebels and refugee sites.

An estimated 1.5 million people in Darfur have been displaced by the fighting, which began nearly two years ago and at least 70,000 refugees have died, mainly from disease and hunger in the camps.

Secretary Powell said he hoped African Union cease-fire monitors and support troops now entering Darfur can stabilize the area. But he stressed the need for a full peace accord that will not only provide security for the refugees, but allow them to return home.

"We will only be successful if the camps finally are closed and these people are allowed to go home and start their lives again and put in crops," he added. "We are not trying to create a permanent population of people in camps. And security I think is uppermost, and security will come from a political solution as well as the presence of security forces and monitors and the presence of the African Union troops."

The United States has provided nearly $50 million to underwrite the African Union (AU) deployment in Darfur, which now includes more than 700 truce monitors and soldiers.

A senior State Department official who briefed reporters said the United States is concerned about the slow pace of assembling the AU force, but said more than 1000 troops could be there by the end of the month.

He said the ultimate goal is a 4200 member force though the operation has encountered planning and logistical problems.

The senior official said the United States has high hopes for an unusual meeting of the U.N. Security Council to be held next week in Nairobi.

The council is expected to set an early deadline for the completion of long-running negotiations in Kenya for ending Sudan's north-south civil war.

He said a final accord for power-sharing between the Islamic government in Khartoum and southern rebels would provide an impetus, and a model, for settling the Darfur conflict.

He said the likely Security Council resolution from the November 18 Nairobi meeting could be unanimous, and contain at least an implicit warning of diplomatic and economic penalties for both parties, if they fail to complete their peace process.