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Sudan leader cites progress in Darfur

On a tour that doesn't include refugee camps, he says lives have returned to normal.

July 23, 2007|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

EL FASHER, SUDAN — On the second day of a rare visit to Darfur, President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir unveiled several development projects meant to bolster the war-torn region, but he did not visit any of the camps filled with people displaced by years of systematic violence blamed on militias linked to his government.

Instead he met with leaders from the refugee camps who said that 1,000 families were ready to return to their villages, even as officials from the United Nations complained about fresh attacks on civilians near El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur province, where Bashir will wind up his tour today.

Darfur's conflict began in 2003 here in El Fasher, capital of North Darfur province, when rebels attacked government troops and demanded that Khartoum share more wealth and power with the long-neglected region. The government is accused of unleashing Arab militias to clear the areas where rebel movements were based, and of promising the so-called janjaweed that they could use the vacated land and keep the livestock.

Since then, more than 200,000 people have died in the conflict and more than 2 million have been displaced, according to estimates by international experts. Khartoum says 9,000 people have died, and it denies any link to the armed groups that have terrorized the area.

But now, as the U.N. Security Council prepares to authorize 26,000 peacekeepers and police to stabilize the region and talk of sanctions gains momentum, the government is taking a new tack.

"We have lost the media war so far," said Interior Minister Zubeir Bashir Taha. "But we are not going to lose it forever."

Taha said the government had greatly increased spending in Darfur in the last year.

"Of course the government has responsibility for the people displaced, and we are spending a lot of money to show our responsibility," he said.

The tour by Bashir and his Cabinet has been dominated by health clinic openings, rallies and visits to newly built wells. At the compound of the governor of North Darfur, tiny deer wandered the grassy grounds while tribal leaders lounged under shade trees. In an air-conditioned hall, the Cabinet assessed government projects in the area.

"During our visit we confirmed that most of Darfur is now secure and enjoying real peace," Bashir said during the open meeting. "People are living normal lives."

But in camps nearby where villagers have sought refuge after militias plundered their villages, residents said their lives had been anything but normal. They pleaded for better facilities during the July rainy season, saying their makeshift homes and tarps could not keep them dry.

The refugees asked in an open letter to the government and the U.N. for a strong U.N. presence to protect them in the camps and when they go home. They also want the militias that attacked them disarmed.

The camps have become a breeding ground of frustration and despair, and of new leaders in the fight with the government for better treatment.

In the meantime, the government has lodged formal objections to plans for new peacekeepers, saying it won't allow troops to use force to protect civilians and aid workers from attackers. French and British leaders said Friday that they would send their foreign ministers to New York to push for U.N. action "with the greatest speed," and they threatened to push sanctions for anyone who worked against the peace process.

In El Fasher, Bashir contended that peace was finally on its way to Darfur. The government has agreed to talk to rebels who previously refused to come to the bargaining table, and more rebel groups will probably sign on in a few days.

The government hopes to begin peace negotiations as early as next month, Bashir said.

"That confirms that the Darfur crisis is on the way to be solved finally, and this conference is confirmation of the unity," he said.

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