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Sudan's President Assesses Humanitarian and Security Needs in Darfur - 2004-04-27

Officials in Sudan said that President Omar al-Bashir traveled to the troubled western province of Darfur on Tuesday to assess the region's humanitarian and security needs. Rebel groups in Darfur are denying the government's claim that they have agreed to participate in a conference to discuss the brutal, 14-month conflict.

Sudan's foreign minister, Mustafa Osman Ismail, said that President Bashir left Khartoum on Tuesday with a delegation of politicians and officials for a one-day visit to the town of al-Fashir, about 1400 km west of the capital in Darfur.

"With him are some of the members of the international community, international agencies, representatives of embassies," he said. "They were there in order to check about the humanitarian situation, what the people of Darfur are in need of."

The foreign minister said that Mr. Bashir, who has blamed most of the region's violence on two local rebel groups who took up arms against Khartoum in February 2003, will appeal to the rebels to help the government bring peace to Darfur.

Both rebel groups on Tuesday denied Khartoum's claim that they had signed a deal in Chad earlier this week to participate in a conference on the situation.

The main rebel group, the Sudan Liberation Movement, said that the deal was signed by a member who did not have authorization to sign an agreement. The other rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement, said that it did not have any representatives in Chad to sign a deal. The group added that it would never participate in a conference, which it believes would do little to solve the region's problems.

Fighting in Darfur erupted as a protest against decades of political and economic neglect by Khartoum. The civil war is estimated to have killed about 10,000 people.

Mediators in Chad, including Chadian President Idriss Deby, have been trying to broker a peace deal for months. Peace talks between Khartoum and the rebels in the capital, N'Djamena, earlier this month did produce a 45-day cease-fire, but efforts to end the conflict have failed so far.

In recent months, the United Nations and international human rights organizations have accused Sudan's Arab-dominated government of backing local Arab militias to carry out a scorched-earth policy in Darfur. A U.N. report that was leaked to journalists last week said the killing, looting, raping and bombing of civilians in Darfur amounted to crimes against humanity.

After numerous delays, a U.N. human rights team this week finally received permission from Khartoum to go to Darfur to investigate allegations of ethnic cleansing. The government denied involvement in any human rights abuses there.

A separate U.N. team left Khartoum for Darfur on Tuesday to assess the growing humanitarian crisis in the region. Both Khartoum and the rebels say they are committed to the 45-day cease-fire to allow urgent aid to reach about a million people displaced by the conflict.