The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says the world must not waste the opportunity to rebuild Darfur following the newly signed peace deal.  Antonio Guterres spoke Friday at the National Press Club.

One the very same day that Darfur's main rebel group and the Sudanese government signed a peace deal to end more than three years of devastating civil war, Mr. Guterres described the current humanitarian situation in the region this way:

"Darfur is the epicenter of an earthquake that has spread around causing havoc in Chad, and we have dramatic problems in protecting refugees in Chad today; in Central African Republic," he said.  "Even creating problems in the peace process in the south [Sudan] that was so successful.  And to solve the problem of Darfur is absolutely crucial to the region."

Given that, Mr. Guterres emphasized the critical need to fully implement the new peace accord for Darfur.

"It is absolutely essential that this window of opportunity is not lost," he added.  "And this will only be possible with the full commitment of the international community. And I hope that this peace agreement will be the basis for a lot of relevant work to rebuild that society that has been destroyed in its foundations and where we have more than two-million people displaced, suffering the most terrible of situations we can find in the world."

So what is the next step for the refugee agency now that a peace deal has been signed?

Mr. Guterres says the accord is only the beginning of a very long and complicated process.  And he pointed out it will not work unless there is an effective international force in Darfur with a strong mandate.

"Now once security is provided, there is a huge work to be done in the rebuilding of that society," he explained.  "And this, of course, will require that the Darfurians are fully engaged in this.  And this will take a long time. And a huge pressure is necessary -- political pressure -- both over the government of Khartoum and the different groups to make sure that this process is not jeopardized by the resumption of conflict."

Discussing the situation in another part of Africa, the Great Lakes Region, the U.N. High Commissioner appealed for continued support once the Democratic Republic of Congo, wracked by decades of corruption and a five-year-long war, holds its first democratic elections in 40 years in July.

"And my appeal for the international community is that it is absolutely essential that the next elections are considered not the end of the transition but the beginning of the true transition for Congo," he added.  "The biggest disaster would be if after the elections, the international community would consider that the work is done and the support for Congo would vanish.  It is after the elections that the expectations of the people about democracy must be met. And they can only be met with a very strong commitment and engagement of the whole of the international community."

Much of the work the U.N. refugee agency will doing will be funded by the United States, the largest donor to the agency.

In fact, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Ellen Sauerbrey announced Friday the Bush administration would be giving an additional donation of $40.7 million towards the U.N. agency's 2006 budget, bringing its total contribution for this year to $274 million.