U.N. and U.S. officials are sounding alarm bells about reports of ethnic cleansing in Sudan, calling it one of the world's worst humanitarian crisis. Government-backed Arab militias are accused of carrying out a scorched-earth campaign against black Africans in the Darfur region.

At a closed-door briefing Friday, two top U.N. officials warned the Security Council that a despicable situation is unfolding in Sudan's western Darfur region.

Acting U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Bertrand Ramcharan charged that the Sudanese government-backed Arab militias are rampaging through Darfur, burning villages and terrorizing black African tribespeople.

World Food Program chief James Morris, just back from the region, said one million people are internally displaced and another 100,000 have fled to neighboring Chad. Speaking to reporters afterward, Mr. Ramacharan said that he had given the Council four reasons to intervene in Sudan.

?First there is a reign of terror in the area. Second there is a scorched-earth-policy, third there are repeated war crimes and crimes against humanity, and fourth, this is taking place before our very eyes.?

Mr. Ramcharan declined to use the term ?ethnic cleansing? to describe the violence in Darfur, saying that was up to others to judge. However, U.S. Congressman Donald Payne, a member of the Congressional Black caucus who attended the Council session, said there is clearly an ethnic component to the killings and forced evacuation.

?My answer is yes, the government of Sudan is practicing ethnic cleansing, period,? he stated. ?I think it's clear the government of Sudan has encouraged, supplied and fostered the rebels on the people. I think they are responsible for the tremendous exodus, that they're looking the other way.?

The Khartoum government has repeatedly denied allegations of ethnic cleansing.

Sudan's U.N. Ambassador Elfatih Mohamed Ahmed Erwa Friday accused U.N. officials of exaggerating the scale of violence. He said residents are fleeing Darfur to escape fighting between the government and rebel forces and flatly rejected charges that civilians are being targeted.

?What triggered the whole situation in Darfur recently was an insurgency,? he explained. ?The government is responsible to counter any insurgency. It has nothing to do with targeting civilians or anything, but as we say, when there is fighting and war, war is a war. You have some problems that result from the war. Maybe in some modern states they call it collateral damage, but there it's a war at the end.?

There was no indication Friday whether the Security Council might take up the Darfur issue in open session. Sudan, backed by Arab countries, argued that Darfur should not be on the Council agenda because it is an internal matter.

Friday's closed-door Council session came three days after the United States walked out of a U.N. meeting to protest a decision to give Sudan a third consecutive term on the Human Rights Commission. Before walking out, the U.S. representative called it absurd to elect a country to the human rights panel that was accused of massacring its own citizens.