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Violence in Darfur Threatens to Spread Beyond Sudan

Sudan hosted summits by both the African Union and Arab League during the past year, and it has one of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world. But the country's Darfur region remains wracked by a deadly conflict that will soon enter its fourth year. Sudan has repeatedly turned away United Nations peacekeeping efforts, despite the threat of a wider conflict engulfing neighboring Chad and the Central African Republic. Noel King in Khartoum looks at the Darfur crisis in this VOA yearend report.

2007 is shaping up to be a critical year for Sudan, as international protests against the continuing violence in Darfur gather steam.

The U.N. Security Council voted in August to send more than 20,000 troops to Darfur to bolster a struggling African Union force, which critics charge has failed to protect civilians.

Sudan has refused entry to U.N. peacekeepers, likening them to colonial forces in the past. But at year-end, the international community is increasing efforts to get troops into war-torn Darfur, where more than 200,000 people have died in nearly four years of fighting.

Western nations are threatening sanctions, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair has endorsed imposing a no-fly zone over Darfur. In addition, the International Criminal Court says it has enough evidence to name suspected war criminals.

The violence in Darfur continues at an astounding rate, however. Observers say government-backed militias known as janjaweed kill, rape and loot with impunity. And Sudanese government forces' campaign against holdout rebels has devastated civilian villages.

The outgoing United Nations undersecretary for humanitarian affairs, Jan Egeland, gave a bleak assessment of the situation after his final visit to Darfur, in November.

He said, "Never would I have thought that on my fourth and final visit, the number of people in need of assistance would have gone from one to four million. This is now 1,000 days and 1,000 nights where defenseless civilians have been living in fear."

"There seems [to be] a deliberate attempt to inflict suffering on the civilian population. This is terror. There is no other word for it. It is defined as terror," he continued.

The rising tide of violence has cast doubt on the strength of the May 5 Darfur peace accord. An agreement between the Khartoum government and a faction of the rebel Sudan Liberation Army was hailed as a major breakthrough toward ending the conflict, but the deal began showing signs of wear less than a month after it was signed in Abuja, Nigeria.

Only a faction of the Sudan Liberation Army led by Minni Minnawi signed the accord. Other rebels say the deal did not meet their basic demands for wealth and power-sharing. In particular, they say a $30-million offer of compensation to three million Darfuri victims is not enough.

With attacks continuing in volatile northern and western Darfur, even Minnawi has indicated he might return to war if violence against civilians continues.

The rebel leader, now an adviser to Sudanese President Omer Al Bashir, spoke to VOA by telephone this week, charging that Sudan has failed to live up to an agreement to disarm the janjaweed militias.

"What is going on now in Darfur is a very big violation," he said. "We requested that the government has to disarm the janjaweed immediately before they take any steps to implement the agreement. As for power-sharing and wealth-sharing, we believe that the government is not serious to implement the agreement."

The conflict is no longer confined to Darfur.

Fighting has spread to neighboring Chad and the Central African Republic, raising fears that the entire region might become embroiled in the conflict.

The violence has hindered the world's largest humanitarian operation, serving some four million people. And clashes this month forced the United Nations and non-governmental organizations to evacuate 250 staff across the region.

Sudan also is charged with restricting aid workers' movements.

The European Union's special envoy to Sudan, Pekka Haavisto, told reporters in Khartoum last week that aid access must improve.

He said, "This has been one of our key concerns. The Norwegian Refugee Council had to leave Darfur because the government denied their visa. We are very concerned if the government is dealing in this kind of way with those organizations that are helping the humanitarian situation on the ground."

"And a second issue is that the access [to] humanitarian aid has been limited throughout this autumn because of fighting and military movements," he added.

Darfur is not Sudan's only conflict zone. In 2005 a peace agreement ended 21 years of civil war between north and south Sudan. The prolonged war, fought over religion and resources, took two million lives and displaced more than four million people.

Recently [early in December] over 100 people were killed during clashes between former rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement and Sudan Armed Forces in the southern town of Malakal.

The violence has cast doubt on Sudan's other key peace accord.

The acting deputy secretary-general of the former rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement, Yassir Arman, tells VOA the Malakal clashes pose a serious threat to the future of the peace agreement.

He said, "The most significant thing about the peace agreement is that it has stopped the war; it has stopped the loss of life. And when now again in Malakal and Juba there are people being killed again, this is a serious issue. Losing life, killing people is a serious thing, and it is worrying because it may derail the whole peace agreement into a real war."

Southern Sudanese say they look forward to a referendum in 2011, in which they will decide whether to secede and form their own nation or remain united with northern Sudan.

In Darfur, another year has passed, with few gains seen. The international community is expected to push hard for U.N. entry into the region in 2007.

Meantime, the future hangs in the balance for two and one half million displaced Darfuris who are waiting to return home.