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Rights Group Says Darfurians Need Protection From Rebels, Government

As the United Nations and the African Union prepare to deploy the world's largest-ever peacekeeping mission to Sudan's Darfur region, Human Rights Watch is calling on the force and the international community to focus on protecting civilians - both from rebels as well as the Sudanese government. VOA's Alex Villarreal reports from Washington.

U.S.-based rights group, Human Rights Watch, says the estimated 4.2 million Sudanese affected by the ongoing conflict in Darfur still face daily atrocities - beatings, rapes, robberies and murders - usually at the hands of government-allied "janjaweed" militiamen and rebel forces.

In a report released Thursday, the group said the government bears primary responsibility for the abuses, accusing it of participating in attacks against civilians and failing to establish a policing force to protect them.

The group called on the 26,000 - strong U.N.-African Union peacekeeping mission being deployed to Darfur to focus on ensuring the safety of the people and restoring their confidence.

The Africa director at Human Rights Watch, Peter Takirambudde, says the success of that task depends on the support of the international community.

"Darfur is a tough environment and is going to call for absolute commitment by the international community to ensure all the benchmarks are met by all actors, the government of Sudan, mind you, even the rebels can be a problem," said Peter Takirambudde.

On Tuesday, President Bush's Special Envoy to Sudan, Andrew Natsios, praised the recent coming together of international forces as one of the most encouraging developments in the region.

But Takirambudde says the international community has not done enough.

"The international community has been virtually in a slumber for the past four years when pervasive abuses were all over Darfur," he said. "Finally, they appear to be waking up, and they're talking a good game. The question is whether or not they are going to be able to pass the test."

Takirambudde says he hopes with more resources and the financial backing of the U.N., the joint mission will be able to accomplish what the African Union mission in place since 2004 could not.

He says there is no more time to waste.

"The people of Darfur cannot wait any longer," said Takirambudde. "We have waited too long. Change must occur sooner rather than later."

The UN/AU hybrid force will take over from the current mission by the end of the year. Peace talks between the Sudanese government and the rebel factions are set to begin October 27 in Libya.

Since 2003, fighting and violence in Darfur have killed more than 200,000 Sudanese and displaced about two million others.