State Department officials say a U.S. team in Chad is close to completing an investigation of whether attacks on refugees by government-backed militiamen in Sudan's western Darfur region amounts to genocide. A preliminary U.S. report says the militias have engaged in a "consistent and widespread pattern of atrocities."
A team of U.S. diplomats and legal experts has been shuttling among refugee camps in Darfur and neighboring Chad for several weeks to compile evidence on whether the Darfur violence fits the definition of genocide.
A senior official here says the process, involving some 1,100 interviews, is "close to being wrapped up" and the findings sent back to Washington for a judgment that could have a major impact on U.S. Sudan policy.
The comments came after The New York Times reported Wednesday that a preliminary State Department review has implicated the government-backed "Janjaweed" militiamen in what it termed "a consistent and widespread pattern of atrocities," including murder, rape and ethnic humiliation.
The existence of the interim report, based on more than 250 refugee interviews in Chad last month, had not been previously disclosed. At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli did not take issue with the newspaper account, other than to stress that the findings were, indeed, preliminary.
The spokesman said the process of evaluating the testimony of the Darfur refugees is ongoing. He reiterated that the pending decision on whether or not genocide has occurred will not have any immediate impact on the way the United States is responding to the Darfur crisis, since it is already a matter of the highest priority.
"Regardless of what the outcome of this information-gathering and decision-making is, there's nothing that we would be doing now differently, in terms of helping the people of Sudan," Mr. Ereli said. "Because their welfare, and protecting them, and doing what we can to help them, is our first and foremost concern, regardless of the label you put to the suffering they are going through."
Mr. Ereli gave no time frame for a final decision on the matter, which would be made by Secretary of State Colin Powell.
As many as 50,000 people have been reported killed and more than a million displaced since last year in a scorched-earth campaign by the Arab Janjaweed against two Darfur rebel groups and their perceived supporters in black African villages.
In its account of the preliminary U.S. report, The New York Times said nearly one third of the interviewees reported hearing racial epithets while under attack, and that nearly 60 percent had witnessed the killing of a family member.
It also said about half of those interviewed by U.S. officials reported that Sudanese government soldiers had joined the Janjaweed in attacking their villages.
A finding of genocide could trigger a wide range of penalties against the militias and the Sudanese government under the 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention.
Both house of the U.S. Congress passed resolutions in July declaring the Darfur situation genocide.
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry has also done so, urging the Bush administration to seek "comprehensive" U.N. sanctions against Sudan and authorization for "humanitarian intervention," if the Khartoum government fails to meet terms of the June 30 Security Council resolution on Darfur.
That measure, among other things, gave the Sudanese government 30 days to rein-in the Janjaweed and fully open Darfur to humanitarian aid.