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Africa Panel Calls for Increased Pressure for Peace in Darfur

Experts at a research organization in Washington held a conference Thursday to suggest aggressive changes in international policy are needed to end the violent conflict in Sudan's Darfur region, where African rebels fight with Sudanese troops and government-backed Arab militias known as janjaweed. The conflict in Darfur has spread over the country's western borders into neighboring Chad and the Central African Republic. President Bush has said he is appalled by what he has called genocide in the region. VOA's Marissa Melton reports.

Experts at the Center for American Progress said Thursday that the international community must focus its efforts and act more aggressively to intervene in the violence in Darfur, where killings and destruction have continued despite a peace agreement signed in May.

Colin Thomas-Jensen, an Africa expert for the International Crisis Group, told the audience that his recent trip to Chad revealed the peace agreement between the Sudan government and one of several rebel groups has made very little impact. He said violence in the region is on the rise and aid workers are having trouble getting to those in need.

"The basic conclusion from our trip is that security on both sides of the border is deteriorating," he said. "I spoke recently with the head of operations for a major NGO [non-governmental organization] working in West Darfur and he told me that each month during 2006, humanitarian access got progressively worse in West Darfur."

Thomas-Jensen says the violence is spilling over from Darfur into Chad, with devastating results.

"Humanitarian groups that we talked to estimate that anywhere from 75,000 to 100,000 Chadians have been driven from their homes in recent months and hundreds of villages burned and looted exactly in the same type of pattern that we see in Darfur," he said.

More than 200,000 people have died and more than two million others have been displaced since fighting between Darfur rebels and Sudan's government began in early 2003.

Sudan denies charges that it is aiding the Arab militias accused of attacking villages in the region.

John Prendergast, a former adviser for President Bill Clinton and author of a number of books on Africa conflict, said current methods of dealing with the crisis - in his words, "part-time diplomacy" - aren't working. He argues that a committed international mission is needed in the area to persuade the embattled parties to work out a solution.

"We have envoys that are part-time, staff that gets rotated regularly, we have no full-time, Colin mentioned the importance of having peel out there working these agendas full time, we don't have that. People have lots of jobs to do when you work in an embassy," said Prendergast. "You have to have dedicated staff working this stuff if it's gonna happen. And so do the Europeans and so do the Africans and they gotta come together in a unified fashion."

Prendergast blamed a lack of interest by the international community for the failure of the May peace agreement. He said half-hearted interest was no match for the dedication of the rebel leaders to their cause.

"Even if that had been a good peace deal, which it wasn't, even if every rebel group had signed it, which they didn't, so phenomenally, we just walked away from this process and watched it fall apart," he said. "You can't do this in this kind of situation. These guys are working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to maintain power by any means necessary."

The panel laid out other suggestions, such as targeted sanctions on Sudan by the U.N. Security Council, and a more concentrated activist movement to pressure governments and other agencies for a solution to the conflict.

The White House put targeted sanctions on Sudan in April last year before the peace agreement was signed, authorizing the Treasury department to freeze the U.S. assets of people connected to the conflict. In December President Bush spoke out in support of people protesting the Darfur violence. He pledged to work with Congress, the United Nations, and the African Union to help achieve stability in the region.