Refugees burned alive as violence returns to Darfur

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The Independent Online

At least 29 people were reported killed yesterday in an "unprecedented" attack on the Aro Sharow refugee camp in the northwestern area of Sudan. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said people in the camp and local villagers had been attacked by 300 "armed Arab men on horses and camels".

Over the past two months thousands of civilians have fled their villages across Darfur. At least 5,000 people have been driven to shelter in camps, saying their villages had been attacked by the pro-government militias known as the janjaweed. Hundreds more are reported to have been killed. The Sudanese government had promised to clamp down on militias operating in the region earlier this year, but both the rebel Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the janjaweed have stepped up attacks on civilians, aid workers and each other.

On Wednesday, the UN's under secretary general for humanitarian affairs, Jan Egeland, warned that the situation in Darfur was becoming so violent that the UN and other aid agencies may have to pull out. He said: "As we speak, we have had to suspend action in many areas. Tens of thousands of people will not get any assistance today because it is too dangerous and it could grow."

Since the beginning of August, more than 45 aid convoys have been attacked on roads leading to the main camps by militias who have beaten up drivers and stolen food from the vehicles. Aid agencies have now stopped using main roads, and are relying on a few helicopters to get supplies to displaced people. Local staff working at many of the camps have not had their salaries paid for months.

Nicki Bennett, based in Nyala for Oxfam, said: "The security situation in Darfur remains extremely volatile - people still face the threat of horrific violence on a daily basis, and insecurity is also hampering humanitarian access ... The African Union peacekeeping troops are helping to improve the situation in the areas where they are deployed, but there are not nearly enough of them. At the moment, there are not even 6,000 troops trying to patrol a region the size of France."

The humanitarian situation has been worsened by rains, which have flooded many of the camps. Medical workers say outbreaks of malaria and diarrhoea are increasing, but they are not able to get medicines to the worst affected areas. A fuel shortage is also hindering the delivery of food and medicines.

All sides have also intensified military operations. Last week, the SLA launched a surprise attack to gain control of the southern Darfur town of Sheiria, and on Monday, the janjaweed, in uniform and on horseback, crossed the border and killed 36 people in Chad. The Chad army, which claims to have killed seven of the attackers, said the janjaweed crossed the border to steal livestock.

Peace talks between the Sudanese government and the SLA resumed in Nigeria this week, but the AU has complained that the SLA is destabilising the talks by continuing to fight. The SLA insists it is only defending itself. The talks are also likely to be hindered by the fact that the SLA has splintered into several groups. A recent UN policy meeting in Darfur was disrupted by Sudanese national security forces, which arrested and later released several of the Sudanese participants.

More than two million people have fled their homes in Darfur over the past two and half years, and an estimated 180,000 have been killed. After an international outcry last year, the Sudanese government agreed to take measures to end the violence, but international attention has moved away from the region.

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