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International Mission, Led by African Union Heads for Troubled  Darfur - 2004-05-08

An international mission led by the African Union met with officials in the Sudanese capital Khartoum Saturday in preparation for a tour of the war-torn Darfur region of western Sudan. U.N. human rights officials say civilians in the region face widespread atrocities at the hand of government-backed militias.

The African Union team is preparing to go to several locations in Darfur and neighboring Chad to lay the groundwork for the Cease-fire Monitoring Commission in war-torn western Sudan.

A spokesman for the African Union, Desmond Orjiako, explains the goals of the mission.

"The purpose is for them to identify suitable locations for accommodation and camping sites for the cease-fire commission," said Desmond Orjiako. "They're also expected to seek relevant information from all the parties concerned on security issues. They're expected to verify the accuracy of information regarding the camps where the internally displaced persons are living."

The commission was set up as part of a truce signed in Chad April 8, in which rebel leaders operating in Darfur and the Sudanese government agreed to stop fighting, which began more than a year ago. The conflict has claimed tens-of-thousands of lives and displaced up to one million people.

The commission is supposed to ensure that all sides honor the cease-fire deal.

Mr. Orjiako says the African Union has a big role to play in resolving the Darfur conflict.

"The African Union sees the conflict in western Sudan as [an] African Union problem, first and foremost, and then of course [it] is also the U.N. Security Council problem," he said. "But we cannot wait until the U.N. Security Council deploys there before we can do something."

The African Union mission follows on the heels of a U.N. report submitted to the United Nations Security Council Friday, which says people living in Darfur face widespread atrocities that include air raids, looting, extra-judicial killings and rape by the Sudanese government and an Arab militia, called janjaweed, that the U.N. officials and others say is being backed by the Sudanese government.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Bertrand Ramcharan told reporters that Darfur is experiencing, "a reign of terror, a scorched earth policy, war crimes and crimes against humanity."

Human Rights Watch also released a report comparing the suffering in Darfur to the early stages of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in which Hutu extremists killed up to 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Human Rights Watch said there is a campaign of ethnic cleansing against black Africans living in Darfur, and blasted the international community for not adequately responding to the Darfur crisis. The U.N. stopped short of calling the atrocities ethnic cleansing.