EU threatens Sudan with sanctions over Darfur refugee crisis

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Citing "masssive human rights violations" - possibly amounting to genocide - European Union ministers meeting in Brussels today are threatening sanctions against Sudan. They hope to push the Khartoum government and rebel groups towards peace and towards improving access for relief groups.

"It's almost certain the international community will take further measures if this situation does not improve," the Dutch Foreign Minister, Ben Bot, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, said after meeting his Sudanese counterpart, Mustafa Osman Ismail.

The German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, also backed the threat of United Nations sanctions unless Sudan disarmed Arab militias responsible for killings in Darfur - a threat first made last week by the American Secretary of State, Colin Powell. But the rebel groups in Sudan are also being accused of refusing to co-operate in the negotiations, hoping that the suffering of thousands of refugees will force the international community to intervene.

"It is obvious that the rebels feel that if they agitate enough they can force the hand of the international community and bring about an intervention on the ground," said a Western observer in Khartoum who declined to be named.

One rebel leader defiantly declared at the weekend that his group would not participate in negotiations until the Janjaweed militiamen, whom they accuse of murdering, raping and robbing black Sudanese with the help of the government, are disarmed.

Khali Ibrahim, head of the rebels' Justice and Equality Movement, said: "JEM will not have any direct contact with the government and will not start any political negotiations ... until the government meets preconditions which are the terms of the ceasefire."

Meanwhile, the plight of tens of thousands of refugees continues. Aid agencies returning to refugee camps in Chad are restoring food supplies after a break of several days due to violence and security threats. The camps are home to more than 40,000 people struggling to survive, while 5,000 more outside the sites are without food.

Humanitarian groups called a halt to their operations last week but workers returned over the weekend after assurances from Chadian officials that they would be able to work in safety. They travelled for hours over bumpy, single-track roads past camels, goats and donkeys to resume operations, their priority being to boost the food supply.

At the Bredjing site, food supplies have all but vanished and shelter for recently arrived refugees is nothing more than makeshift homes of branches and plastic sheeting. "We need food, health care and tents," one woman said, clutching a child in her arms as others gathered around her.

A teacher at a Koranic school, Adam Abdelkerim Yaya, explained he had used up all of his monthly food ration and the next one had been due three days before. "I have nothing now," the 29-year-old said, as children chanted verse under a small straw-roofed shelter doubling as a classroom.

Already battling to cope, aid agencies are bracing for another influx of refugees, expected to cross the border if fresh fighting erupts in Darfur. Around a million people still remain displaced within the conflict-torn region; aid groups estimate that as many as 450,000 are within 60 miles of the frontier and could easily end up in Chad.

Confronted with the imminent necessity of setting up new camps, aid workers are finding it difficult to find suitable sites which, despite the desert terrain, provide good water supply. "The first thing we have to identify is where we could put the people," said Geoff Wordley, of UNHCR. "We agreed the planning figure would be for 200,000."