The UN human rights chief said yesterday that "several hundred" civilians -- far more than first thought -- may have died in late August attacks by militias in the south of Sudan's Darfur region.
Louise Arbour, the head of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), has accused government-backed militia of carrying out "massive" attacks on Sudanese civilians in South Darfur province in an apparent attempt to "completely change the ethnic balance" in the area.
"Government knowledge, if not complicity, in the attacks is almost certain," said a report compiled by Arbour with Sudanese-based UN monitors on the incidents around the town of Buram in late August.
"The [OHCHR] ... is urging the government of Sudan to order an independent investigation into recent militia attacks that may have left hundreds of civilians dead in south Darfur," it said in an accompanying statement.
Early last month the UN High Commissioner's office put the possible death toll from raids near Buram at 38. It said many of the 10,000 people in the 45 villages targeted during the attacks, which began on Aug. 28 and lasted into last month, were forced to flee.
But it revised the figures in its latest report on the situation in Darfur, drawn up together with the UN Assistance Mission in Sudan, and based on interviews with survivors and other sources.
The report said that large-scale assaults "resulted in chaotic displacement, widespread separation of families and scores of missing children."
"Most of the villages attacked were under government control," it added.
Violence in Darfur has taken tens of thousands of lives since 2003 and more than 2 million people have been driven from their homes after a simmering ethnic conflict between nomadic Arab tribes and mostly non-Arabs erupted into war.
The Buram raids were carried out by between 300 and 1,000 armed men from the Habbania "Arab" tribe, the OHCHR said. Subsequent attacks by militia from another government-allied tribe, the Fallata, caused the population to scatter even further, hampering aid efforts, it added.
The report cited local officials as saying the attacks were a response to previous rebel action in the area, although there was little sign of a rebel presence at the time.
The aim of the assault appeared to be to drive out settlers who had arrived in the area in the 1970s, it said.