Thu, Jul 01, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Not-quite-genocidal Sudanese militias must desist: Powell


US Secretary of State Colin Powell has issued a direct appeal to Sudanese President Omar el-Bashir to rein in militia groups he said were responsible for a "horrific" humanitarian crisis in western Sudan, including the uprooting of more than 1 million people.

But despite the deaths of tens of thousands of black Africans blamed on government-backed Arab militias during the 16-month conflict in Darfur Province, Powell stopped short of calling the killings a genocide -- as some human-rights groups have described.

The situation in Darfur is moving toward genocide -- "but we are not there yet," Powell said on Tuesday before a meeting with el-Bashir after arriving in the Sudanese capital.

Powell is teaming up with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who was to arrive here yesterday to pressure the Sudanese government to stop the fighting, disarm the militias and remove the obstacles to the flow of humanitarian aid into the country.

The two will visit refugee camps in the Darfur region.

Powell's decision to become the first US secretary of state to visit Sudan in 26 years underscored the depth of his concern about the situation in Darfur, which has been described by UN officials and others as the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

The 16-month conflict began after a rebellion by black African tribesmen, who accused the government of widespread neglect, sparked a counterinsurgency led by Arab militias known as Janjaweed. The militias have been accused of killing at least 30,000 people, mostly black Africans, and driving at least 1 million from their homes.

US officials have also called the situation "ethnic cleansing," and Annan said last week the situation was "bordering on ethnic cleansing." At least one rights group, Physicians for Human Rights, says there are indications that genocide is underway.

Sudanese officials, however, reject the claims and say the warring sides are clashing over land and water resources. El-Bashir's government promised this month to disarm all militiamen and irregular forces in Darfur. But the UN says little progress has been made.

Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail, appearing with Powell at a news conference, said there may be some humanitarian problems in Darfur but insisted "there is no famine, no malnutrition and no disease" in the area.

He promised to be responsive to repeated US appeals for Sudan to lift restrictions on humanitarian access to Darfur and to disarm Arab militias.

Powell said, "There is a need for additional security so that the humanitarian effort can go on unimpeded."

But regardless of how quickly outside aid can be provided, "the death rate is going to go up significantly over the next several months," he said.

A UN human-rights investigator said on Tuesday she saw "strong indications of crimes against humanity" during a 13-day visit to western Sudan this month and called for the international community to investigate exactly what happened.

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