An offensive by government-backed militia in northern West Darfur has destroyed two towns that had hosted thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs), sources said.
Aid workers in the area, who wished to remain anonymous, said the attackers had "burned to the ground" Abu Sorouj and Sirba towns, about 55km north of El-Geneina, the capital of West Darfur.
General Martin Agwai, the commander of the joint African Union-UN force in Darfur, confirmed the attacks. "Many houses in the village of Abu Sorouj have been burned and from initial information it appears there has been loss of life.
"There is the potential for displacement of large numbers of villagers, compounding an already critical humanitarian situation," Agwai warned.
As many as 12,000 people fled into neighbouring Chad as a result of the attacks, said the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
The attack on 8 February was condemned by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. He urged parties to the Darfur conflict to follow international humanitarian law, which prohibits military attacks against civilians.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said more than 150 people died while thousands were left without food or shelter.
"The Sudanese government is once again showing its total disregard for the safety of civilians," Georgette Gagnon, HRW’s Africa director, said in a statement. "This return to large-scale attacks on villages will be catastrophic for Darfur's civilians, because they're completely unprotected."
Villagers cut off
Since December, the northern corridor of West Darfur has seen repeated clashes between Sudanese government forces and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), which took control of key villages north of El-Geneina in December.
According to HRW, the attacks have cut off about 160,000 civilians from aid.
"People in West Darfur are completely at the mercy of the armed groups," Gagnon said. "The Sudanese government's own police pulled out in December because of the fighting, and the UN force simply doesn't have the capacity to protect them."
Abu Sorouj and Sirba had hosted at least 40,000 IDPs who fled insecurity in surrounding villages in 2004. Another 4,000 IDPs arrived last week, according to the NGO MedAir, which supplies medical care to the camp.
Amnesty International said the attack was carried out by a large force that included Janjawid militia on horses and in vehicles, while nine military airplanes were seen overhead.
Describing the attack as a major test for the AU-UN mission, which took over from the AU Mission in Sudan on 31 December but is still woefully under-resourced, Amnesty called on the force to ensure the safety of all civilians in Sirba and Abu Sorouj.
"The [UN] Security Council ... should call on Sudan to comply with international humanitarian law and ensure that civilians are protected at all times and call on JEM not to endanger civilians by stationing armed men within civilian areas," Tawanda Hondora, Amnesty’s deputy programme director for Africa, said on 8 February.
In New York, Jan Eliasson, UN Special Envoy for Darfur, told the Security Council that unrest in Chad and violence in Darfur had impeded progress towards peace and would impede the AU-UN mission.
"The resolution of the Darfur crisis requires an environment conducive to peace," Eliasson said, calling for a cessation of hostilities in Darfur where fighting has claimed 200,000 lives and forced more than two million others to flee their homes since 2003.
Photo: Derk Segaar/IRIN
|The hybrid AU-UN force is still under-resourced|
UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Jean-Marie Guéhenno told the Council: "In addition to prolonging the suffering of millions of civilians and complicating the peace process, continued hostilities will have negative consequences for the deployment ... and will distract the mission from implementing its mandate."
The Sudanese government, however, accused the envoys of “double standards”, saying its forces had moved into the area to remove JEM forces and restore security where opposition fighters had committed attacks and driven out the police.
Speaking to reporters after the Council meeting, Eliasson said: "Not only do we have the problems related to the events in Chad and their ramifications on the situation in Darfur, but we also are receiving reports of attacks on villages in Western Darfur by the Sudanese Army forces and militia groups.
"The situation is running out of control. We cannot get the political talks going if we don't have an atmosphere, a climate, where talks can take place."
Talking about the AU-UN mission, Guéhenno said: "We have a mission that is under-resourced but is trying to make the best of a very difficult situation. But it is facing a very dangerous situation because ... there is a kind of war going on in Western Darfur. For a peacekeeping force to operate in the midst of war is a very dangerous posture to be in."
The force, he added, had very limited resources at this stage. "The people of Darfur expect the world of us," Guéhenno said. "We would want to give them what they hope for, but we are not in a position to do so."