Annan tells Darfur refugees that protection from militias is at hand

Kofi Annan assured displaced black Africans in Sudan's troubled west yesterday that no one would force them to go home without guarantees of protection from marauding Arab militias.

The UN secretary general sat on the ground in a circle with African women who fled from the militias, known as Janjaweed, and listened quietly as the women, in brightly coloured wraps, told him why they could not return to their villages.

"I agree with you and I am in discussions with the Sudanese government to make sure there is security so you can go home," Mr Annan said, visibly touched. "Nobody is going to force you to go home without security."

After years of conflict in Darfur between nomadic Arab tribes and African farmers, two groups rebelled last year, accusing Khartoum of arming the Janjaweed, which the government denies. The United Nations says two million people have been caught up in the fighting, creating the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

Rights groups and US officials say the Janjaweed are on a campaign of ethnic cleansing in remote Darfur, which borders Chad. Khartoum says the Janjaweed are outlaws and it has promised to try to disarm them.

The Sudanese Interior Minister, Abdel Rahim Mohamed Hussein, said political talks with the rebels would start in Chad today. "Our negotiation team comprising the state ministers for foreign affairs,and the state minister for humanitarian affairs, has left for N'Djamena with Kofi Annan to start political negotations," he said.

Darfuris in the Zam Zam camp, 11 miles south of El Fasher, the capital of Northern Darfur state, said they were ashamed to be there, but were afraid they would starve if they went home. "It is the war that drove us here," Hassan Adam Suleiman said. "It hurts my pride to be here. This rainy season is gone so we cannot plant. Next year we know we will starve."

Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, said during a visit to Sudan on Wednesday that the UN Security Council might pass a resolution on Darfur if Sudan does not disarm the militias and allow full access to humanitarian agencies.

The US has circulated a draft resolution which imposes an arms embargo and travel ban on the Janjaweed but does not take action against the Sudanese government itself. The Sudanese Foreign Minister, Mustafa Osman Ismail, assured Mr Powell that Sudan was working to achieve security in Darfur and would speed negotiations with the rebels.

Jan Egeland, a UN emergency relief co-ordinator, said the UN was slow to act in Darfur, where 350,000 people could die this year of disease or malnutritionn. He also blamed Khartoum for inaction.

"It is one of the biggest logistical nightmares in the history of humanitarian assistance," he said, referring to aid operations in Darfur, an area the size of France but with few roads and little infrastructure. "We have to admit we are late in Darfur." Khartoum blocked aid access for two months after the ceasefire with the rebels in April, he added.

The rains make roads almost impassable, increase the threat of malaria and helps disease spread in the camps.

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