The State Department says the Bush administration is considering imposing travel and financial sanctions against officials of the Sudanese government to pressure them to rein in Arab militiamen accused of ethnic cleansing in Sudan's western Darfur region.
The State Department says the idea of sanctions on Sudanese leaders is under "active consideration" amid mounting international concern about the situation in Darfur, where analysts say brutal treatment of local residents by government-backed militiamen may be growing worse.
An estimated one million people have been driven from their homes in Darfur since last year by the "Jinjaweed" militias, who have been using scorched-earth tactics to put down a revolt by two local rebel groups.
The United States and European Union, among others, have accused Sudanese authorities of impeding access to the region by relief workers and supplies, and experts have warned of a rising death toll among displaced people comparable to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
In a lead editorial Friday, the New York Times said condemnations of Sudan's government by the United States and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, among others, are not enough.
The newspaper said in the absence of action by the U. N. Security Council, where it said Sudan is being shielded by Pakistan, Algeria and China, the United States should act on its own with targeted sanctions against Sudanese leaders.
At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said no country has done more than the United States to draw attention to, and to respond to, the Darfur crisis. He said the Bush administration is already contemplating steps proposed in the New York Times editorial, including possible sanctions:
"We've been on record, a week before the editorial, as calling for exactly that. So that is a position I think the U.S. government shares. On the subject of imposing sanctions on government of Sudan officials, it's something we're looking at. It's an idea under active consideration. We are reviewing available information to determine which specific individuals could be designated as responsible."
The Bush administration has used targeted travel and financial sanctions before, notably against Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, his family members and close associates for election-rigging and political repression.
The Sudanese government denies any links to the militias and accuses foreign governments of blowing the events in Darfur out of proportion.
But a senior U.S. official who spoke to reporters here said there is "good evidence" the government is involved with the militias -- arming them and sometimes providing air support for their operations in Darfur.
He also said U.S. sanctions, if imposed, would not necessarily be leveled at Sudanese President Omar el-Bashir or Vice President Ali Osman Taha, but rather at officials of the country's security services and others with links to the militias.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said last week the Bush administration has begun a review of whether the situation in Darfur fits the technical definition of genocide -- a finding which could lead to the international prosecution of those responsible.
But spokesman Ereli rejected a suggestion by the New York Times that the debate over definitions is stalling U.S. action on Darfur.
He said whether the situation is termed ethnic cleansing or genocide makes no difference to the people of Darfur and said the United States' focus, at what he termed "this critical moment," is on stopping the depredations against them.