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British Official Visits Sudanese Camp, Says Attacks Continuing

Amnesty International reports today that armed militias and government bombing raids continue to afflict Darfur villagers.

August 25, 2004|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

KHARTOUM, Sudan — British Foreign Minister Jack Straw spoke to fearful victims of violence sheltering at the Abu Shouk camp in the Sudanese region of Darfur on Tuesday, and later said atrocities continued in the western area.

Straw's visit came as Amnesty International reported that government bombing raids and attacks by militias continued to afflict villagers in Darfur.

The London-based organization accused the Sudanese government of arresting and intimidating displaced people and others who spoke out to foreign observers about the crisis there.

The foreign minister's visit, designed to increase the pressure on the Sudanese government, came days before a report to the U.N. Security Council on what progress Khartoum has made in disarming the Arab militias responsible for the violence and in improving security in Darfur, an area larger than California.

International sanctions and punitive measures are seen as unlikely, but given the poor progress on security, Sudan faces intense international pressure to accept several thousand additional African Union troops and cease-fire monitors, a measure seen by Western diplomats here in the Sudanese capital as a positive step.

"What I understand is that there has not been aerial bombardment since the end of June, that the cease-fire as a formal cease-fire is broadly holding, but that atrocities have continued," Straw said at a Khartoum news conference.

He said that people felt safe within the camps but that it was imperative to improve security outside.

"It's palpable the fear people have, about the way people feel they were driven from their homes and the fear people have about going back to their homes and returning to their livelihoods," he said.

The bombardments and helicopter attacks earlier this year focused international concerns that the violence against civilians was being carried out by the Sudanese military in concert with the Arab militias. Amnesty International's report, released early today, said bombings were still occurring.

The violence has left an estimated 30,000 people dead and forced more than 1.2 million to flee their homes. Straw said that no one group was to blame for the killings and atrocities, but that the government had to take the heaviest responsibility because it held power.

After visiting the refugee camp, Straw met with Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, and later with humanitarian workers.

Underscoring the need for Sudan to do more to improve security, Straw said he told the president that "the government of Sudan had to help us to help them, and that meant fulfilling the obligations imposed on them by the United Nations."

"We all know that, alongside immediate action to end the atrocities and make the countryside safe, we need to see a political settlement," he added. He said access for humanitarian agencies had improved.

The crisis began after two regional rebel groups representing black African pastoralists rose up last year seeking a greater share of resources.

The government has denied having armed and supported the Arab janjaweed militias that retaliated by attacking villages, killing men and raping women. But the government recently acknowledged that it controlled some janjaweed.

Reuters news agency reported Tuesday that people at a camp near Geneina, close to the border with Chad, were still being harassed by militias

Amnesty International said the government's promise of 16,000 to 20,000 police in Darfur was undermined because people did not trust government forces, in light of reports of police abusing homeless victims of the violence.

"Government bombings still occur, attacks, killings of civilians and rapes of women and girls -- in rural areas but also in the vicinity of displaced camps -- continue," the Amnesty International report said. "Impunity of the janjaweed and the government army for the continuous abuses on civilians remains total."

It cataloged the arrests of journalists, lawyers, displaced people and others who spoke out about the situation in Darfur.

"The denial of the right of freedom of expression stems partly from the government of Sudan's continued denial of the seriousness of the situation and its part in causing it," the report said. "Only when the Sudanese government acknowledges its responsibility in the crisis in Darfur will it be able to take meaningful measures to end it."

At peace talks in Abuja, Nigeria, between the government and the two rebel forces -- the Sudanese Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement -- the sides agreed on an agenda, but there was a problem when the rebels refused to discuss one of the points.

Straw and others have suggested that a peace protocol signed in May by the government and a different group of rebels in the south to end 21 years of north-south civil war provides a model for a peace deal in Darfur.

Some are optimistic that if grasped by both sides, the protocol could help speed the negotiations over Darfur, with much of the groundwork having been pounded out in the north-south peace talks.

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