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UN to Send Fact-Finding Mission to Darfur - 2004-04-03

The United Nations says it plans to send a fact-finding mission to Darfur in western Sudan to investigate atrocities allegedly committed against civilians by government-backed militias.

A Spokesman for the U.N.'s Human Rights Office, Jose Dias, says the officials will interview refugees who have fled into neighboring Chad to escape fighting between rebels and government forces. He says the U.N. also hopes to visit Darfur in western Sudan.

He says, the human rights investigators hope to leave on their mission in a few days.

"The Acting High Commissioner has expressed deep concern over the deteriorating human rights and humanitarian situation in Darfur. He cited reports of systematic human rights abuses against civilians," Mr. Dias said. "He has urged all parties to the conflict to stop the violence immediately, respect human rights and international humanitarian law, ensure the safety and personal security of civilians and grant unhindered access to humanitarian workers in Darfur."

Mr. Dias says the U.N. Human Rights agency has not yet received a formal reply from the Sudanese government that the mission will be able to go to Darfur.

The United Nations calls what is happening in Darfur one of the world's worst humanitarian catastrophes. It estimates that, since war between two rebel groups and the Sudanese government broke out last year, up to 700,000 people have been internally displaced. More than 100,000 Sudanese have fled Darfur and taken refuge in neighboring Chad.

In a recent report, the U.S.-based group, Human Rights Watch accuses government armed forces of indiscriminate bombing of civilians and says troops and militia were destroying villages of three ethnic, non-Arab black peoples.

The Khartoum government denies involvement in any of the reported atrocities and blames the violence on the Sudan Liberation Movement and another rebel group fighting in Darfur.

But, a United Nations official who has just returned from Darfur tells a different story. U.N. Emergency Coordinator, Daniel Augstberger, says the widespread atrocities committed against civilians by government-backed militia is equivalent to ethnic cleansing.

"During these military operations, especially when they are conducted by these militias on the grounds, we witness rape, gang-rape, systematic looting, destruction of villages and a policy which really forces this population to move out," said Daniel Augstberger.

On Friday, the U.N. Security Council approved talks aimed at ending the bloodshed in Darfur. However, the U.N.'s Sudanese Ambassador said he held out scant hopes of a solution from talks going on in Chad.

The United Nations says it needs about $115 million to provide humanitarian aid to hundreds of thousands of people in Darfur. It also has issued an appeal for $30 million to help 110,000 Sudanese refugees in Chad.