Darfur attacks put deadline to disarm militias in jeopardy

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Ceasefire monitors were investigating claims yesterday that Sudanese helicopter gunships attacked a village as a United Nations deadline calling for an end to violence neared.

Ceasefire monitors were investigating claims yesterday that Sudanese helicopter gunships attacked a village as a United Nations deadline calling for an end to violence neared.

Sudan has until later today to disarm militias drawn from Arab tribes, or face UN penalties. Yet, a month after the Security Council passed a resolution obliging the government in Khartoum to end the killings in the west of the country, there are still no signs of peace.

The most recent attacks came in the area of Khadjr Abir in west Darfur. Civilians who survived the attacks talk of how they first heard Sudanese aircraft circling overhead, then saw the Janjaweed, as the Arab militia are known, coming over the horizon on camels and horses.

Aid agencies are in no doubt that civilians in Darfur are still being attacked. Lino Bordin, the head of missions for the UN High Commission for Refugees in Chad, said: "These are broken promises from Sudan. They said they would try to resolve the situation somehow, but that is not happening yet."

The government justifies its military presence by saying it still has to control guerrilla groups in Darfur. Rebels say that the government has bombed civilians and is now preparing to launch a final assault on them. Since 4 June, 85 villages have been destroyed and 408 people have been killed.

Hundreds of civilians have crossed the border from Sudan into Chad and aid agencies say thousands more are still hiding in Sudan. People in Darfur are desperate for help. The African Union is keen to solve the problem but few have any confidence in its ability to bring the situation under control.

The village of Um Hashab lies abandoned and in ruins after Thursday's attack, directed at the Sudan Liberation Army, one of two rebel factions waging war against the government in Khartoum. The charred earth, scorched trees and empty huts in the desert settlement show that the 18-month war goes on, despite an 8 April ceasefire.

"Three days ago they came and dropped bombs on my village," said Adam Salim Abu Bakir yesterday. He fled to Zam Zam refugee camp, 12 miles from Al-Fasher, the capital of north Darfur. "It is still burning," he said, walking through ash into the ruins of what he said had been his brother's hut.

An international aid agency operating in Sudan urged the UN Security Council to take tough measures, but it remains unclear what measures can be enforced. A worker with the aid agency, which did not wish to be identified to protect its workers, said: "The ceasefire has not held, and there is still fighting throughout Darfur. Today we have heard chilling reports that villages are still being attacked and burned.

"Armed Janjaweed militias are still present around the camps and continue to harass and terrorise the civilians. Every day, we hear reports that women and girls are being raped, while the government denies the existence of the problem.

"The Council must demonstrate that the last resolution was not simply full of empty threats. A new resolution must implement targeted sanctions immediately on key individuals who have been instrumental in perpetuating the conflict in Darfur."

Talks in Nigeria between Darfur's rebel groups and the Sudanese government adjourned yesterday with the two sides far from agreement.

Ahmed Mohammed Tugod, negotiator for the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) rebel group, said: "There is a big distance between what we think about improving the humanitarian situation in the camps and what government thinks."

AU mediators are expected to produce a draft compromise agreement when the talks resume today.