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UNHCR Chief Warns Peace Prospects Slipping Away in Darfur

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, warns peace prospects in Sudan's conflict-ridden province of Darfur are slipping away. The refugee agency chief says failure to resolve the Darfur conflict could jeopardize a peace accord ending 20 years of warfare between northern and southern parts of Sudan. The annual U.N. Refugee Conference has just ended in Geneva.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres says, when he visited Darfur a month ago, things were looking better than they do now. When he was there, he says, there was a window of opportunity that the peace deal ending Sudan's long-lasting north-south civil war might have a positive impact on Darfur.

He says peace negotiations in the Nigerian capital of Abuja on resolving the Darfur conflict also seemed to be making progress. But, since then, he says, violence has been increasing in Darfur.

"And, if there is not a very strong commitment of the whole of the international community - the African Union, the United States, relevant partners in the area - there is a risk that the peace process derails," he said. "And, without a peace agreement, things on the ground will become out of control. Even with a peace agreement, there will be a huge task to bring security in the field, to bring reconciliation, to bring disarmament. It will be a huge task with a peace agreement. Without a peace agreement, it will be an extremely risky situation."

Not only will this have serious consequences for Darfur, but Mr. Guterres says the impact on the rest of Sudan could be terrible.

The high commissioner says he is very concerned about the protection of refugees and displaced people in conflict areas. He says he also is worried about asylum-seekers fleeing persecution, who are being denied entry to countries that are tightening their asylum rules.

Mr. Guterres says his office is planning to create a post of Assistant High Commissioner for Protection to lead a fight against intolerance, discrimination and public misperceptions about asylum-seekers. He says many refugees are being refused asylum because a growing number of countries are turning away economic migrants and tightening their borders against suspected terrorists.

It is obvious that refugees are not terrorists," he said. "They are the victims of terror, and they do not constitute a threat to our societies. We need to fight terror without any compromise, but we need to preserve the institutions of asylum, as it is a main component of democracy itself."

High Commissioner Guterres says the new post is particularly crucial now, as the United Nations has given the UNHCR more protection responsibility.