Fighting in Sudan Triggers Humanitarian Crisis, Jeopardizing Peace Talks

By Stephen Mbogo | July 7, 2008 | 8:15pm EDT

Nairobi, Kenya ( - Invoking the memory of the Rwandan genocide a decade ago, humanitarian agencies are warning that ethnic cleansing of the kind that triggered the carnage in Rwanda is now taking place in Sudan's western Darfur region.

There are also fears that the localized violence could upset long running efforts to negotiate an overall peace agreement to end Sudan's costly civil war.

They report that Arab militias sponsored by the Islamist government in Khartoum are conducting a campaign to drive out the black population of around six million.

The United Nations this week sent human rights monitors to the affected areas to access the impact of the fighting, perpetrated by militias known locally as the Janjaweed.

The U.N.'s emergency relief coordinator, Jan Egeland, told the Security Council that humanitarian workers had documented the killing of 212 civilians last month in Darfur, but the actual figures were believed to be much higher.

"I have colleagues from my office seeing, in desperation, people getting killed, gang raped, abused and not being able to do anything to help," he said.

Egeland warned that the violence had caused one of the "worst humanitarian crises" anywhere, and urged the Security Council to pay greater attention to the situation.

"I would say it is ethnic cleansing, but it is not genocide, and we should avoid it escalating further."

Humanitarian agency \lang10252 Medicines San Frontieres termed the crisis in Darfur and across the nearby border with Chad as "serious."

\lang10252 The U.S. S tate Department condemned the violence, calling on Sudan's government to act against the militias which it said were continuing to burn villages and kill and abuse civilians.

Department spokesman Adam Ereli said Khartoum should allow for outside monitoring of the situation in Darfur and facilitate unrestricted humanitarian access.

As many as 700,000 people have been internally displaced by the fighting, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 110,000 have sought refuge in neighboring countries.

Efforts to stop the violence in Darfur have taken the form of peace talks in Chad between the Sudanese government and two small rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), but reports say the regime has been hostile.

Sudan has been torn by civil war since the mid-1980s between the mostly Muslim-Arab north and the Christian and animist, black African south.

U.S.-backed peace talks to end that conflict have been underway in Kenya, between representatives of the regime and the main rebel group, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). Although most of the most pressing issues have been resolved, several deadlines for reaching a comprehensive agreement have come and gone.

The Darfur crisis began early last year, when the SLA and JEM launched attacks on government garrisons, demanding political autonomy and a share of national resources.

In response, the government mobilized and armed Arab militias who are paid from booty captured in raids on villages.

The International Crisis Group (ICG), a non-profit conflict-resolution organization, has warned that if the Darfur talks in Chad collapse, it could affect the overall peace talks in Kenya.

ICG representative John Prendergast said that while prospects for peace in Sudan had begun to look so promising in 2003, it has become a potential horror story in 2004.

He said the Khartoum-SPLA talks taking place in the Kenyan town of Naivasha "must not be allowed to deadlock, and a parallel process needs to begin to address both the humanitarian and political crises in Darfur."

ICG Africa director Stephen Ellis said the international community must make the Sudanese government realize that it can no longer be treated as a partner in the peace process if Darfur continues to burn.

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