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International Pressure Increasing on Sudan to Resolve Darfur Crisis - 2004-07-02

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan have both visited the western Darfur region of Sudan to see for themselves the extent of what is called the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

A convoy of more than a dozen vehicles makes its way through muddy ruts that pass as roads to a refugee camp outside the northern Darfur city of el-Feshir.

It is an official visit by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. In the camp, he sits under a tree to talk with tribal leaders who were forced to flee their homes with their families. "What would make you go back to your villages? What are the conditions under which you would go back?" Mr. Annan asked.

Tribal leader Ahmed Noor Mohammed says if there is food and if it is safe enough to return home, they will go.

That is a common refrain in the refugee camps in Darfur, now home to an estimated one million people who have fled attacks by the Janjaweed militias.

In the campaign of terror, women are especially vulnerable. Many are afraid to leave the safety of camps to collect firewood because of the possibility of murder or rape by the Janjaweed who often patrol areas near camps on horses or camels.

This woman says it was the Arab Janjaweed who made them leave and come here. She says that many of their husbands are now dead.

For generations, there have been mild tensions between Arab nomadic groups in Sudan and black African farmers in Darfur over land and scarce resources.

Two Darfuri rebel groups, the Sudanese Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement, launched insurgencies against the government in February 2003, complaining of neglect. Analysts say the government responded by manipulating historic tensions, creating an ethnic conflict.

Jemera Rone, with the group Human Rights Watch says, "The Sudanese government, instead of fighting the guerrillas or the rebels, have gone out and conducted a scorched earth campaign against the civilians that are the base of the guerrillas and done extensive ethnic cleansing of these three communities."

Ms. Rone says that means the government tried to manipulate the demand for land and resources as well.

"So they had, number one, an illegal or military strategy, which is to attack civilians, destroy their homes and drive them out of their homes,? she said. ?And number two, they use people who are most likely glad to do that because the militias are motivated quite highly by the loot that they will capture, primarily the farm animals that they loot and then sell for a profit. They also have grievances against these communities and apparently want their land as well."

With the visit of the U.N. secretary-general and separately, the U.S. secretary of state earlier this week, the international pressure may be starting to build on Sudan.

Authorities in Khartoum recently allowed greater access to humanitarian aid workers in Darfur and the government announced its decision to disarm the Janjaweed, a group it denies creating.

Visiting the refugee camp with the secretary-general is Ibrahim Mahmood Hamid, Sudan's minister for humanitarian affairs. He describes the Janjaweed as a natural byproduct of Darfur's insurgencies.

"We have to start to react to these rebellions. And if, due to the war, other people, outlaws, they are coming, and using this environment, we think that [those] responsible for creating this environment which encourages the outlaws to attack the people [are the rebels], not the government," Mr. Hamid said.

Human rights groups have called for international intervention in Sudan over the Darfur issue and they are getting some reactions. The U.S. government has threatened sanctions against Sudanese leaders if they fail to act against the Janjaweed, although no specific deadlines have been set.

With more than a million people facing epidemics and hunger, the international community for the moment is simply caring for those it can reach.