Up to half of Darfur's population has been trapped by renewed violence in the Sudanese province where the Khartoum government has stiffened its resistance to a United Nations peacekeeping force, the UN secretary general has warned.
The humanitarian crisis - once described as the world's worst by the UN - has become so alarming that Kofi Annan has alerted the Security Council to the deepening conflict which has been overshadowed by the war in Lebanon. In a letter, obtained by The Independent, Mr Annan says: "As a result of the fighting and direct targeting of humanitarians, only 50 per cent of civilians affected by the conflict can be reached by humanitarian organisations. The rest, some 1.6 million people, are either inaccessible, or can only be reached by putting the lives of aid workers directly at risk."
Villagers are fleeing to camps reporting "indiscriminate killings, rape and abduction", he goes on. Even women living in the camps are not safe. In one case last month, "several hundred militiamen attacked a group of women collecting shelter materials outside Kalma camp, south of Nyala, raping 17 of them". Three months ago, the world rejoiced when Sudanese rebels struck a power-sharing peace deal with Khartoum that was to end three years of conflict that killed an estimated 200,000 people and displaced 1.8 million.
But since 5 May, when the accord was signed, rebel factions have turned on each other, the killing of black African civilians by Arab militias has resumed and aid convoys have come under attack. The Sudanese government has, meanwhile, stepped up its resistance to a fully fledged UN force taking over from an African observer mission.
The Security Council will discuss today Mr Annan's gloomy assessment in which he also laments the fact that the African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission faces bankruptcy, despite a "relatively positive" outcome from a Brussels pledging conference last month. The AU mission's mandate expires on 30 September. At that time, it had been hoped that the Khartoum government would agree to a 24,000-strong UN force being dispatched to the region on 1 October, with a more robust mandate than the AU observers. The UN now hopes to deploy an international force in January, but the Sudanese government has steadfastly disrupted preparations for it.
On Tuesday, emboldened by the Lebanese conflict, Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese President, declared: "We are determined to defeat any forces entering the country just as Hizbollah has defeated the Israeli forces. We are opposed to the deployment [in Darfur] of American, British or other forces imposed by the Security Council."
On the political front, attempts to enforce the peace deal have proved counter-productive as the main rebel group loyal to Minni Arkoi Minawi, which signed the accord, has clashed with other rebel groups that did not. And critical deadlines for implementation of the Darfur Peace Agreement's power-sharing provisions regarding posts reserved for rebels in a regional administration have slipped.
According to Mr Annan, a plan to restrict the government-armed Janjaweed militia to designated areas has gone unheeded. Relief workers are dismayed about the turn of events in Darfur. Jan Egeland, the chief UN humanitarian officer, has said the situation is "going from real bad to catastrophic". About 14,000 aid workers have remained in Darfur despite the safety risk - 11 have been killed since the peace deal was signed. The UN high commission for refugees said yesterday that the agency remained extremely concerned about the continuing deterioration in the security. Some Darfur aid workers have been beaten to death by angry mobs, according to the UNHCR.
The World Food Programme warned yesterday that a decline in donations might force it to scale back food rations for six million people in Sudan.
Chadian refugees are continuing to flee into Sudan as insecurity in their country spreads. About 15,000 Chadians have sought refuge in Sudan in the past eight months, and Médecins Sans Frontières says cholera has broken out in one camp. Amnesty International said that "what the people of Darfur need now is an international peacekeeping force with the power to put a stop to the killings, to the raping and to the displacement". Human Rights Watch is calling for the imposition of sanctions against Sudanese leaders over their opposition to the UN peacekeepers.
The Security Council is also expected to consider how to help the African Union mission - it may also authorise communications and command and control equipment to be transferred to the mission. But the aftermath of the Lebanese conflict will weigh heavily on the discussions. "It's true, there is heavy demand because of Lebanon," said one council diplomat.
Urgent appeal for release of envoy jailed by Sudan for 'spying'
Human rights groups have issued urgent appeals for the release of Tomo Kriznar, an award-winning peace activist who was jailed by Sudan this week on charges of "spying" in Darfur.
Mr Kriznar, from Slovenia, a writer, film-maker and human rights campaigner, has been held since 20 July when he was handed over to Khartoum by African Union forces.
He had originally travelled to the Darfur region in February as special envoy for the Slovenian President, before returning four months later in a bid to persuade rebel factions to sign a peace deal.
Mr Kriznar believes he was accused of spying because he had uncovered details about a cover-up of mass graves in Darfur. He claims he was handed over to Sudanese security forces by African Union peace monitors who had negotiated his supposed safe passage from an area cut off by factional fighting. "This disproportionate sentence on Tomo Kriznar is the Sudanese government's way to tell human rights activists and journalists to keep out of Darfur," said James Smith, chief executive of the Aegis Trust. "They think that if the crimes committed there are out of sight, they will also be out of mind. They know that if they deter people from bringing evidence to the international community of the terrible atrocities being committed, then world leaders will be less inclined to protect the people of Darfur."
At a court hearing in Khartoum Mr Kriznar admitted entering the country via the border area with Chad, without the correct visa. According to the Sudanese news agency Suna, investigators said Mr Kriznar was taking pictures and filming video material of villages around Darfur.
The imprisonment of the peace activist recalls the detention last year of Paul Foreman, country head of Médecins Sans Frontières, after its report of endemic rape in Darfur.
Daniel HowdenReuse content