UN agency in Darfur accused of failing to properly investigate claims Sudanese army 'raped children'

Report suggests the presence of soldiers during interviews with villagers in north Darfur affected their responses

War had returned to Tabit in north Darfur. But once the soldiers had departed there were no bodies to bury. It was unarmed men, women and children that were targeted after a busy market day in the village.

The men were led away: many were said to have been badly beaten. The women and girls, some as young as seven, were said to have been continuously raped until the following morning when the troops moved on.

During the years that conflict has consumed Darfur, more two million have been displaced and hundreds of thousands killed. Many, many, others have been subjected to sexual violence from men in uniform.

The United Nation's agency in North Darfur, the African Union-United Nations Mission in Darfur (Unamid), says there is no evidence that the rapes in Tabit took place. So, too, does the Sudanese army, accused of carrying out the attacks. It describes the claims as "unjustified and unreasonable". But from New York, to London, to Darfur there is an increasingly loud chorus of disagreement.

Unamid's interviews with Tabit residents came more than a week after the incident, and were carried out alongside government forces. The agency says no one confirmed what took place in the town the night of 31 October. It had first tried to reach Tabit on 4 November but was not granted government approval. Eventually, five days later, Unamid reached the village.

The next day it announced it had been granted access to investigate the reports of 200 women and girls being raped. "None of those interviewed confirmed that any incident of rape took place in Tabit," Unamid said.

But Unamid's internal report suggests the presence of Sudanese soldiers during its interviews affected villagers' responses. The AFP news agency said the report read: "The behaviour and responses of interviewees indicated an environment of fear and intimidation."

The UN envoy on sexual violence, Zainab Hawa Bengura, told the Security Council that the heavy military presence during the interviews raised concerns that a "wall of silence was created".

Villagers say the attacks were carried out by the Sudanese Armed Forces "in retaliation" for the unexplained disappearance of a soldier.

Accounts published by the short-wave Darfur station, Radio Dabanga, and passed to The Independent on Sunday, are harrowing. One woman described four soldiers coming into her house. She said they had beaten her husband before hitting "everyone, even the kids".

She is asked if she has daughters. "They raped them," she sobs. "They are 12, 10 and seven years old … Me and the girls. They did this with all girls and women in the area, all houses suffered the same."

Another villager is asked how many girls and women were abused. "Too many," she replies. "Too many, I cannot count them." A man described as a village elder tells the interviewer: "They entered every house, sometimes 10 together. They raped everyone without exception."

In the event of danger in Tabit, help is less than 20 miles away, at El-Fasher, the capital of the region, where Unamid is base.

Radio Dabanga's director Hildebrand Bijleveld claimed a number of people they, and the Saudi Al Arabiya TV, spoke to in the village have since been arrested. It is claimed the Sudanese arrested 26 men over three days last week in an attempt to identify the informants.

Mr Bijleveld said on Thursday: "They have started arresting people to find out who was speaking to us. They are beaten. The people in Tabit are afraid and angry."

There is growing disquiet at the UN headquarters in New York at Unamid's investigation. "Members of the council, of course, are very concerned on this whole question of Unamid and Unamid reporting, but also what Unamid is doing," said Gary Quinlan, Australia's ambassador and permanent representative at the UN, last week.

The US State Department spokesperson, Jen Psaki, said it was a matter of "regret" that the Unamid team had not been allowed to get to the site immediately, and urged further investigation.

The way that Unamid has investigated past attacks on civilians is already under review in New York. This was triggered by a three-part series, published in US magazine Foreign Policy in April that documents the agency's failure to report crimes against the innocent, both by rebels and government forces.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had initially refused to sanction an investigation into Unamid, but in July an internal inquiry was set up. Its findings are yet to be publicly disclosed.

In August, the then Unamid head, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, said of the investigation into Foreign Policy's claims: "The Mission has nothing to hide … they [New York investigators] will enjoy our full cooperation so this matter can be brought to rest as quickly as possible …"

Since the supposed end of the Darfur conflict in 2006, the world's attention has moved on. But Darfur, campaigners say, remains a largely unreported tragedy.

And those in Tabit predict the mass rape will not be the last time they are attacked without any means of alerting the world to their plight. As a village elder said last week: "You should know that there are many stories not told yet … There are many atrocities."

Unamid did not respond to requests for comment.