U.S. lawmakers are calling on the United Nations to act to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in Sudan's Darfur region.
Members of a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee were briefed on the situation in Darfur by U.S. officials and representatives of international human rights groups.
Rights groups say the Sudanese government, with support from Khartoum-backed Arab militia, has been waging a campaign of ethnic cleansing in the remote western region of Darfur. Sudanese officials deny the accusations.
But Julie Flint, Darfur field researcher for Human Rights Watch in London, says what she found during a recent visit to the region makes the government denials ring hollow.
"The first and most striking thing I found in Darfur is a completely empty land, mile after mile of burnt and abandoned villages, irrefutable evidence of a scorched earth policy the government says does not exist. Hundreds of thousands of farmers lived in this area more than six months ago. Today there is quite literally no one," he said.
John Prendergast, co-director of the International Conflict Group, says the international community deserves part of the blame for what has happened in Darfur.
"Let us tell the truth, the world did not lift a finger to stop it," he said. "There was not one United Nations Security Council resolution, or one permanent U.N. human rights monitor put on the ground. There was not any additional pressure applied."
Mr. Prendergast says the Sudanese government is now using starvation and disease as weapons of war, blocking humanitarian relief from getting to those in need.
Bush administration officials agree. "Have they been denying access to those who could go there to help the civil population or to see and report on what was going on? Yes, they do deny access," said Roger Winter, assistant administrator for the Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance Bureau at the U.S. Agency for International Development. "There has been very restricted access".
The U.S. State Department this week reiterated that the Sudanese government cannot expect normal relations with Washington as long as the situation in Darfur persists.
It is a position backed by members of Congress. "That government should expect no support, financial, political, or otherwise from the U.S. government and the U.S. taxpayer until meaningful action has been taken to stop the violence, protect civilians, and cooperate with relief efforts," said Senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat.
Many lawmakers also called on the United Nations to do more to respond to the situation in Darfur. "The international community must condemn Khartoum's actions unequivocally and must insist that Khartoum stop attacks on civilians by government troops and militias and provide unfettered access for humanitarian workers," said Senator Joe Biden is the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Senator Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, calls the situation in Darfur "the gravest humanitarian crisis that exists in the world today". Mr. Brownback plans to visit Sudan later this month, and he extended an invitation to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to accompany him.
"I would invite him publicly to go with me to that region," he said. "He really can bring authenticity to it (the issue) that is desperately needed so we do not see hundreds of thousands more die."
As many as 30,000 people are believed to have been killed in the Darfur conflict, which erupted in February of last year.