Secretary of State Colin Powell will visit Sudan next week to press leaders in Khartoum to rein-in militiamen blamed for ethnic-cleansing in the western Darfur region. Mr. Powell says the situation in Darfur is already a "catastrophe."
Mr. Powell has established close ties with Sudanese leaders in recent months in connection with efforts to promote a settlement of the country's north-south civil war.
He is making the visit to that country, which will be the first for a Secretary of State since 1978, to try get them to use their influence to end the Darfur violence and fully open the region to relief workers and supplies.
Arab militiamen backed by the Sudanese government have been using scorched-earth tactics in Darfur since early last year in an effort to put down a local rebellion.
Some 10,000 people have been killed and more than one million African villagers have been displaced by the violence in what U.S. officials describe as "ethnic cleansing." The State Department is also looking into whether the situation fits the legal definition of genocide.
In a talk with reporters, Mr. Powell said his mission to Sudan, which will include a visit to Darfur, had been under discussion for several days and that President Bush gave the go-ahead Thursday when it became clear that logistical details could be worked out.
The Secretary said he hopes the success of Sudan's north-south peace talks can be a basis for progress on Darfur. He said he expects to meet Sudanese President Omar el-Bashir and press for an end to violence in Darfur and access for aid workers.
"Let the aid flow freely, let the humanitarian workers in. Use government forces and political influence to end the attacks, and to act in a very responsible way to help these people as fast as we can. The situation is so dire that if we were able to do everything we wanted to do, tomorrow, there would still be a large loss of life because of the deprivations that people are under now," said Mr. Powell.
Mr. Powell has coordinated his efforts with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who is also preparing to visit Sudan and he said he hopes to meet Mr. Annan there to underscore international concern about the situation, which he termed a "catastrophe."
He said it is "incumbent upon the international community to come together solidly" and do everything possible to bring relief to "these desperate people."
At the United Nations, Andrew Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, met Mr. Annan and said the agency's estimate that 350,000 people in Darfur could die of disease and starvation in the coming months is "conservative."
Mr. Natsios said the United States has surveillance photos showing destruction in hundreds of villages and refugee camps in Darfur and in neighboring Chad.
Officials here said the pictures show that attacks have focused on African, as opposed to Arab, villages -- supporting the depiction of the violence as "ethnic cleansing."
Last Saturday, following a U.S. threat to impose sanctions against Sudanese leaders, President el-Bashir said he had ordered Sudan's army to disarm the militias and prevent violence for spreading into Chad.
However, a State Department spokesman said Thursday the United States has not yet seen any systematic action to rein-in the militiamen, known as the "Janjaweed."
Mr. Powell will visit Sudan after taking part with President Bush in the NATO summit in Istanbul and before a visit to Jakarta late next week for talks with foreign ministers of the Southeast Asian grouping ASEAN.