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Situation in Darfur Region of Sudan 'Desperate,'  says UN Official - 2004-03-19


A senior United Nations official says attacks against civilians in Sudan's Darfur region have created the worst humanitarian and human rights crisis in the world today. The official is urging the international community to take bold steps to end the conflict.

The United Nations' humanitarian coordinator for Sudan, Mukesh Kapila, called for an internationally monitored cease-fire to halt the year-old conflict in western Sudan.

Mr. Kapila said attacks by Arab militias, which many analysts say are being backed by the Sudanese government, have intensified in recent months, in spite of the government's pledge to honor a cease-fire.

"What is going on in Darfur today is tantamount to war crimes," said Mr. Kapila. "Phraseology like 'ethnic-cleansing' that has been used by some people is not too far off the mark. The situation in Darfur is pretty desperate, and it is getting from bad to worse - when we have systematic villages being razed to the ground, mass movement of population, organized rapes."

The fighting in Darfur erupted in February of last year, after an uprising by rebels pushing for more political autonomy and a bigger share of the nation's wealth.

Since then, the United Nations estimates more than 10,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed; and more than 600,000 have been displaced.

Some Western observers and many of those fleeing the conflict say the attacks are ethnically motivated.

They say Sudan's Arab-dominated government is backing Darfur's Arab militias in their bid to "Arabize" the region. Darfur's estimated eight million people are mostly black Africans, including the Fur, Masalit and Zigawa ethnic groups.

Mr. Kapila said although there has been progress in the peace talks in Kenya aimed at ending Sudan's 21-year civil war, the violence in Darfur must not be overlooked in the negotiations.

"It's a question of how much is settled before the agreement is signed, and how much will have to be settled after the agreement is signed," he said. "Assuming that the Darfur situation continues, this is going to be a hot potato for anybody in any government in Khartoum."

For now, the United Nations is focusing on the more than 110,000 Sudanese who have fled to neighboring Chad. The large-scale exodus has created a humanitarian crisis, as aid groups struggle to provide food, water and medicine for refugees in the remote, semi-arid desert near the Chad-Sudan border.

Arab militias reportedly have crossed the border into Chad to attack the refugees and steal livestock, prompting counter-attacks by the Chadian army.

Many fear that the cross-border attacks could widen the violence in Darfur into a regional conflict.