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UNHCR Chief Urges Sudan to Beef Up Security in Darfur

The head of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees starts a 10-day tour of Sudan and Chad to underscore the need for international support of the people of Darfur. It is his first visit to the region.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres met with top officials in the Khartoum government Tuesday to push for increased security for people living in the country's volatile western Darfur region.

Mr. Guterres, the former Portuguese prime minister, plans to spend most of his 10-day trip to the region visiting refugee camps in Darfur and in neighboring Chad. The U.N. agency has had to provide much of the food and shelter for the two million people driven from their villages by the Darfur conflict. About 200,000 of them fled to the border deserts of eastern Chad.

Spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency Kitty McKinsey says the purpose of the trip is to refocus the world's attention on Darfur and to stress the need for the international community's support for peace in both southern Sudan and Darfur.

Although the focus of the trip is humanitarian, Ms. McKinsey says, Mr. Guterres is expected to urge Sudan's government and rebel leaders to return to the negotiating table in Abuja, where peace talks have stalled.

"Certainly, he will be stressing the need for the stalled Abuja peace talks to continue and for both sides to live up to agreements they have already made," she said. "Obviously, people will not feel confident to go back to their homes as long as militias and armed people are marauding through Darfur. So obviously, they need to be reined in, but he does not have a direct political role in bringing the two sides together."

A rebel uprising in 2003 sparked the conflict in Darfur, as Sudanese troops and their allied Arab militias, known as the Janjaweed, retaliated by attacking hundreds of villages in the region, killing hundreds of thousands of people in what the U.S. has called genocide.

Even though some violence persists in Darfur, thousands are returning to their villages to rebuild their lives after more than two years, says Ms. McKinsey.

"Some people are being brave and going back on their own," she said. "About 15,000 have come back from Chad and about 5,000 who are displaced within Darfur itself have gone back to their villages. Where people are taking the steps to go back and vote with their feet for a good future in Darfur, the U.N. refugee agency and other U.N. agencies are following them and helping with projects that will make it possible for them to stay home. But by and large it is not safe for people to go back to their villages right now."

Earlier this week, in a radio interview in Portugal, Mr. Guterres accused the international community of "systematic negligence" when it came to crises in Africa, like the conflict in Darfur or the food emergency in Niger.

Mr. Guterres ends his trip next week with a visit to Kenya's Kakuma refugee camp, where tens of thousands of southern Sudanese refugees have remained, despite a January peace deal that officially ended the 21-year civil war.