Rising numbers of displaced in Darfur

Conflict in Darfur, western Sudan, has displaced over half a million people since March, in addition to 70,000 who have fled across the border to eastern Chad, according to the UN.

Figures remain uncertain due to access constraints and poor road conditions, but the latest estimates document at least 300,000 IDPs in northern Darfur, and 126,000 in western Darfur. In southern Darfur 76,000 have been displaced this year, on top of 200,000 who fled north from Bahr el Ghazal between 1988 and 2001.

As with the larger Sudanese conflict, the root cause of the Darfur situation is unequal access to and control over resources.

Nomads in Darfur, who are supported by violent Arab militias, have pitted themselves against local farming communities, who are being pushed off their land towards towns and cities. Hundreds of villages have been burned to the ground by the militias - in northern Darfur at least 200 - and thousands killed, according to Daniel Christensen, the UN Area Coordinator for western Sudan. Still more have died of malnutrition and disease as a result of being displaced.

Official talks between the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) rebel group operating in the region and the government are reportedly scheduled to start at the weekend in Abeche, Chad, to discuss the 45-day ceasefire which came into effect on 6 September. The SLM/A spokesman, Ahmad Abd al-Shafi, told IRIN that no decisions had been made yet on whether to renew the expired agreement.

He said the government - which has denied backing the militias but has said it will bring them under control - had continued to attack civilians in Darfur during the last ceasefire. "There is no chance of another ceasefire. I don't think so. The government insists on fighting," Abd al-Shafi said.

Meanwhile the government and the SPLM are negotiating a peace agreement in Naivasha, Kenya, and have committed themselves to signing a deal before the end of 2003 which will exclude smaller rebel groups with grievances like the SLM/A.

John Prendergast, a Sudan analyst and the Africa programme co-director of the International Crisis Group, told IRIN it was a mistake to view the war in Sudan as simply between north and south. He said an eventual peace deal between the government and the SPLM/A could spark further instability in both Darfur and eastern Sudan, if people felt left out of the peace process.

"The potential is that westerners and easterners may feel so excluded, that the only way to join the table is to pick up a gun," he said.

If, however, when the SPLM/A was part of the government, it worked to address the marginalisation in Darfur and other areas it could prevent further bloodshed. "It depends on how the parties play it," said Prendergast, emphasising that all of Sudan's regions had to benefit from peace dividends.