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UN: Darfur Humanitarian Situation Depends on Peace Talks

A senior United Nations official says the humanitarian situation in Sudan's conflict-ridden province of Darfur is deteriorating. He says an improvement of the situation is dependent on a political settlement between the Sudanese government and rebel groups. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva that U.N.-African Union mediated peace talks are scheduled to begin in Sirte, Libya Saturday.

The Darfur peace talks are getting off to a shaky start as all of the main rebel groups have announced they plan to stay away. Only a few minor groups that have splintered off the main factions have said they will attend.

U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, John Holmes, says he hopes those who have been invited to the talks will attend. He says the political process is absolutely fundamental toward ending the war.

"I strongly hope that the rebel groups, fragmented though they are, whatever problems they may have will see that this is the best opportunity they are likely to have in the near future to make some political progress and to have their demands addressed in a sensible fashion with international mediation," he said. "So, I would hope that they will turn up. If they do not turn up on Saturday, I hope they will, because this is not a one-off opportunity-it will be open to them to join the process at a later stage. I very much hope they will do that and do that in a fully representative fashion."

The war between the Sudanese-backed Janjaweed Arab militia and African rebel groups erupted in 2003. Since then an estimated 200,000 people have died and more than 2.5 million have been uprooted from their homes.

Only one rebel group signed a peace deal worked out with the government of Sudan in Abuja, Nigeria in 2006. The agreement has had little support among the 2 million people living in U.N.-run displacement camps. Since then, the main rebel groups have divided into many small competing factions and violence has increased.

Holmes says it is becoming riskier and more difficult for aid agencies to work in Darfur. Just last week, he notes, three truck drivers delivering food were killed. He says relief convoys and aid workers are regularly attacked by bandits, who hijack and steal vehicles, equipment and goods.

"These security problems, the lack of access that these security problems are causing is beginning to have an impact on the humanitarian situation as well," he added. "It is particularly worrying, for example, that the most recent surveys in some of the camps have suggested that malnutrition rates, which had been well under control last year, are now beginning to increase again, which suggests that we are not getting as much aid through as we were doing before."

For all these reasons, U.N. emergency chief Holmes says it is important for the political talks to make progress. He says aid agencies also are looking forward to the deployment of a larger, more robust peacekeeping force in Darfur.

The deployment of a U.N./African Union force of 26,000 soldiers is expected to begin at the end of the year. Some of the rebel groups have said they would not attend the peace talks until the hybrid force was in place to stop the rape, looting and murder in Darfur.