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Sudan: One Million at "Imminent RIsk" in Darfur, Says U.S. Government

(Nairobi, March 12, 2004) One million people are "at imminent risk of life and livelihood" in Sudan's western region of Darfur, due a lack of civil order and the "refusal of local and national authorities to permit unrestricted access for humanitarian workers", according to the US government.

A statement released on Tuesday said the US viewed the deepening humanitarian crisis in Darfur with grave concern. Particularly threatening were the actions of the "government-supported militias, known as the Janjawid, who continue to attack and burn undefended villages, murdering and raping the inhabitants and forcing survivors into desperate flight to garrison towns" or neighbouring Chad, it said.

An estimated 110,000 refugees have crossed the Chadian border since last June, while about 700,000 have been displaced by Arab militia attacks and government bombing campaigns within the Darfur region.

The government has said the attacks are part of its strategy to "crush" two rebel groups operating in Darfur, but observers say the attacks are deliberately targeting civilians from the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawah communities, thereby clearing vast areas of land for Arab nomads. A growing number of voices are referring to the strategy as ethnic cleansing.

The US government had offered to facilitate talks specifically aimed at resolving the issue of providing humanitarian aid, it said in a statement. It stood by the offer but the government of Sudan had yet to respond, it added.

Humanitarian access to Darfur has improved slightly in recent weeks, with up to 30 percent of the region's 700,000 displaced now accessible, up from 15 percent in January.

Last month, the Sudanese government claimed that the war in Darfur was over, saying it had defeated the region's two rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Movement and the Justice and Equality Movement. Both groups rejected the claim and launched an immediate offensive.

Meanwhile, there are daily reports of militias attacking civilians with impunity and also stealing much-needed aid provided by the UN and other agencies.

The elders of one village in northern Darfur were so scared of militia attacks that they asked UN staff not to deliver aid to them as it would increase their chances of being targeted for looting and harassment.

Locals have also reported to UN staff that they feel like "prisoners" in their own villages, because of the systematic abuse they are subjected to by Arab nomads, who take over their land to accommodate their camels and cattle. There have also been reports of hostage taking, with villagers having to ransom civilians to obtain their release from unlawful custody, and having to pay bribes to gain access to their own farmland.

In Kabkabiyah, northern Darfur, 60 percent of farmers have reportedly lost their crops, and as a result not managed to keep sufficient seed supplies for the next planting seasons, the UN reported this week. Livestock have also been killed and irrigation systems and orchards destroyed, with production set to decrease by 60 percent.

The US has appealed to the Sudanese government and opposition leaders to ensure the safety and unhindered movement of relief workers and commodities into the area; immediately enter into negotiations to bring about a humanitarian ceasefire; and to act "decisively and transparently" to disarm and bring under responsible authority all irregular forces, particularly the Janjawid, it said.

In a separate development, the UN refugee agency chief Ruud Lubbers is currently visiting the refugees in Chad. So far, problems finding suitable sites with access to water have meant that only 7,700 of the refugees have been relocated from the insecure and extremely arid border region - where they are frequently attacked by militias - to three inland camps at Farchana, Touloum and Kounoungo.

IRIN is a United Nations humanitarian information unit. This article may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. All materials in this article copyright by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2004. This article first appeared, and can be found, on IRIN

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