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UN Official Suggests More Autonomy for Darfur - 2004-09-24

The chief of the United Nations refugee agency says the Sudanese government should grant more autonomy to Darfur to help end a conflict that has claimed some 50,000 lives.

The comments by U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, essentially put him on the same side as the rebels in Darfur, who have been fighting since early last year for greater self-rule in the region.

Mr. Lubbers, a former prime minister of the Netherlands, told British radio Friday he knows his views are controversial, but he wants to speak out for the sake of more than one million Darfurians who have been driven from the homes by the fighting.

"One cannot simply say this is rebels against a legitimate government. It's more complicated," Mr. Lubbers said. "I think in my position, while we are looking for a space for people to survive and rebuild their lives, you have to point a bit of a way forward to the future, and my gut feeling is the best would be that Sudan find itself in a way where it accepts relative autonomy of regions. Now it's a bit controversial, maybe, as the high commissioner but I've learned through the years, maybe I can afford at my age now just to speak my mind and to say what I think has to be said."

The Darfur conflict erupted in February of last year when two black rebel groups took up arms against the Arab-controlled government in Khartoum, accusing it of ignoring Darfur's needs.

In response, an Arab militia called the Janjaweed began raiding black villages in Darfur, and witnesses say it has been supported by the Sudanese military. The United States says the Janjaweed attacks amount to genocide.

Mr. Lubbers spoke from Chad, which is hosting about a quarter of a million refugees from Darfur. He is on a tour of the region to bring more world attention to the conflict.