Darfur is descending into anarchy as new militia groups spring up and threaten to prolong the war, a senior United Nations official has warned.
Jan Pronk, the UN's special envoy to Sudan, told the Security Council that the Sudanese government is not capable of controlling the armed groups that have started operating. Militias on all sides have begun to take hostages and use landmines, taking the violence to another level.
Mr Pronk said: "Darfur may easily enter a state of anarchy; a total collapse of law and order. The conflict is changing in character; the government does not control its own forces fully. It co-opted paramilitary forces and now it cannot count on their obedience. We may soon find that Darfur is ruled by warlords." On Thursday he asked the UN to help the African Union send troops as quickly as possible to stem theviolence.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) also warned that Arab militias known as the Janjaweed are still attacking civilians in Darfur. In a report released earlier this week, the international charity said people were still being beaten, raped or killed, often on their way to refugee camps. Many women still complain that the Janjaweed attack them when they go into the countryside to gather firewood, and report being stripped or whipped.
The Janjaweed have not been arrested or prosecuted by government forces. MSF said armed men wander freely through towns on market days, frequently shooting into the air to intimidate people and steal from them. Civilians complain that, having stolen all the livestock, the Janjaweed now take beds or other household items.
The rebel Sudan Liberation Army has also been accused of contributing to rising levels of banditry and violence in Darfur. Members are suspected to have planted a landmine which killed two members of the Save the Children charity last month. In the same period, they abducted 18 people of Arab descent from a bus in Western Darfur, setting off a chain of revenge attacks.
The UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, condemned the kidnapping and said: "The SLA and the militia risk sparking a new round of violence that could claim the lives of thousands of civilians."
Mr Pronk added that unless all sides agreed to a peace deal soon, the fighting would destroy this year's harvest and the whole population of Darfur would become dependent on humanitarian assistance.
The UN Security Council has decided to hold its November meeting in Nairobi later this month to show its support for peace talks in Sudan. The UN has twice threatened to impose sanctions on the north African country, but has shied away from doing so. However, the Nairobi meeting will be chaired by John Danforth, President George Bush's former special envoy to Sudan. One UN official said: "Danforth played a key role in finding peace in south Sudan. He knows the country well and the fact that he is chairing this meeting is a cause for optimism."
Earlier this week, the United Nations condemned the Sudanese government for raiding two refugee camps near Nyala and forcing some refugees to move to another camp.
Meanwhile, talks between the rebels and the Sudanese government in Abuja, Nigeria, have hit yet another stumbling block. The rebels asked for the area over Darfur to be declared a no-fly zone; the Sudanese government has refused to agree.
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