Sudan must do more for refugees, warns Straw

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Jack Straw today warned the Sudanese government that it must do more to protect refugees fleeing the violence in Darfur after seeing for himself the conditions in which they are living.

The Foreign Secretary found himself surrounded by cheering refugees when he flew in from the capital, Khartoum, to visit the Abu Shouk camp, near El Fasher in northern Darfur.

The camp - described by one British official as the "Hilton" of the Darfur camps - is home to around 57,000 people forced to flee their villages following a campaign of violence by the Arab militias known as the Janjaweed.

Mr Straw said that, despite efforts by the Sudanese government to comply with international demands to restore security in the region and provide access to the aid agencies, more needed to be done.

"I think that the government of Sudan has made progress in some fields. Humanitarian access is much better. Security within the camps is better," he told reporters in the camp.

"But there is a very great deal to be done before these and 1.2 million like them feel reassured enough to go back to their villages.

"That requires a real effort by the government of Sudan to provide for their safety and also to ensure that there is progress in the peace talks."

Mr Straw said he had listened carefully to the refugees' stories about why they had fled their villages, and had heard accounts of aerial bombardment and of militiamen raiding whole villages and slaughtering menfolk in particular.

One British official, who has been working in western Darfur, said that the region remained largely "bandit country" in which "the Janjaweed are doing what they want, where they want, when they want to the non-Arabs".

Having driven the farmers from their villages into the camps, the Janjaweed kept them there through lower level abuse such as beatings and sexual attacks, ensuring they were free to do as they wished in the rest of the country.

The official said that it could be the spring of next year before the refugees felt secure enough to return to their homes.

After spending more than an hour touring the Abu Shouk camp, Mr Straw acknowledged that it was probably the best of its kind and not typical of the conditions elsewhere in Darfur.

He said that, above all, he had been struck by the scale of the problem.

"I knew the numbers, but it is one thing to know the numbers, it is quite another thing to come here, to survey this camp, and to realise that there are more than 50,000 people here but that is only one 20th of the people displaced as a result of the conflict in Darfur," he said.

The camp, which was opened in April, consists of around 8,000 plastic-sheeted huts arranged in relatively neat rows. It is scratched out of parched earth covered in dried animal bones just to the north of the town of El Fasher.

Aid workers said that other settlements consisted of little more than huts made of sticks and twigs, upside-down birds' nests under which six or eight people will shelter from the sun.

Mr Straw said that he would be reporting to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan ahead of the forthcoming meeting of the Security Council which will decide whether the Sudanese government is doing enough to resolve the crisis.

"It will be Kofi Annan's report to the Security Council at the end of this week which will be crucial in determining whether the government of Sudan has done enough to meet the obligations imposed on it by the resolution passed at the end of last month," he said.

"The issue is not whether everything has been resolved by the 30-day period set by the Security Council, but whether the government of Sudan are on track to do that and also whether the rebel groups, some of which are supported by other countries, are meeting their obligations."

While the Security Council has left open the prospect of sanctions if the Sudanese do not comply, British officials admit there is little appetite on the council for "heavy duty" measures such as an embargo on oil exports.

Mr Straw denied that the international community was "going soft" on Sudan, but acknowledged: "This is a very imperfect situation".