Mon, Dec 20, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Darfur in chaos as deadline passes

AP , Abuja, Nigeria

Battles continued Saturday in Sudan's bloodied Darfur region, officials said, as a deadline set by African Union peace-talk mediators for an end to active hostilities expired.

AU mediators in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, gave Sudan government and rebel delegates a 24-hour ultimatum Friday to stop fighting in the western Darfur region by 6pm on Saturday, but officials said the government continued attacks.

AU spokesman Assane Ba told reporters that government helicopters were attacking the town of Labado. Sudan's government said it was defending against an insurgent offensive.

"What the government is doing in these areas is actually within its sovereign rights," Sudan's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Najib Abdulwahab said in a statement issued by Sudan's embassy in Nigeria.

Ba said mediators would ask Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, current head of the 52-nation African Union, to personally intervene in the week-old talks.

Rebels boycotted the talks on Monday, saying they wouldn't meet face-to-face with government mediators on Darfur, where tens of thousands have died and some 2 million chased from their homes in the nearly two-year crisis.

Ba said earlier Saturday that government troops were pulling from some positions in Darfur, but he later said that attacks were continuing elsewhere, citing top AU cease fire monitor Nigerian Brigadier General Festus Okonkwo.

Rebel mediators couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

There is no official reckoning of the overall toll of the war, which was sparked in February last year when two non-Arab African rebel groups took up arms to fight for more power and resources from the Arab-dominated Khartoum government.

The Sudanese government responded by backing an Arab militia known as the Janjaweed, which is accused of targeting civilians in a campaign of murder, rape and arson. The US accuses the Janjaweed of committing genocide.

Disease and hunger have killed 70,000 in Darfur region since March, the World Health Organization says. Nearly 2 million are believed to have fled their homes since the start of the crisis.

The African Union is responsible for monitoring an earlier, largely ignored cease-fire pact. Three earlier rounds of peace talks have failed to calm Darfur. There are currently some 800 AU soldiers and 100 observers in Darfur.

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