U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is planning a visit to Sudan to look into reports that Arab militias in the Darfur region are massacring black African civilians. Mr. Annan says he is not ready to describe the violence in Darfur as "genocide."
In comments to reporters, Secretary-General Annan referred to Darfur as a "tragic humanitarian situation." He noted new estimates that more than one million people have been forced out of their homes in the western Sudan region and said the Khartoum government must allow humanitarian workers free access to Darfur.
Mr. Annan says much more must be done to alleviate what aid groups and his staff are calling the world's worst humanitarian crisis. In particular, he called on Sudan to rein in Arab militias that are conducting what relief officials say is a "scorched earth policy" in Darfur.
"We have also asked the Sudanese government to take steps to control the Janjaweed militia, who are doing quite a lot of the killing and disruption of the lives of the people in the region," he said. "I myself expect to visit Sudan sometime soon, and ? I think it is the responsibility of the government to protect the population, and we need to encourage it, and must insist it does it."
But when asked whether he agreed with some human rights and aid groups who have accused the Janjaweed militia of genocide in Darfur, Mr. Annan was cautious.
"Based on reports that I have received, I can not at this stage call it genocide," he explained. "There are massive violations of international humanitarian law, but I am not ready to describe it as genocide or ethnic cleansing yet."
Mr. Annan said if the Khartoum government is unable to protect Darfur's black African population, it should allow the international community to do so. The comment is seen as a laying the groundwork for a future U.N. peacekeeping mission for Darfur.
The Sudanese government has strongly denied accusations of genocide and has resisted calls for allowing peacekeepers into the region. Government officials describe the situation in Darfur as a civil war in which government forces are battling rebel groups.
The U.N. Security Council has been slow to take up the Darfur issue, even after dire warnings from relief and human-rights officials. Sudan, backed by Arab and African nations as well as Russia, has lobbied to keep the issue off the Council's formal agenda.
Last month, the Council passed a statement calling on Khartoum to disarm the Janjaweed, and last week, in a resolution on another subject, described conditions in Darfur as "catastrophic."
U.N. humanitarian officials have nearly doubled their estimate of the number of Darfurians in acute need of food and medical aid, from 1.2 to two million people. They said the revised estimate followed visits by aid workers to previously inaccessible parts of Darfur.