Prague, 29 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Ruud Lubbers issued a call for "zero violence" in Darfur as he was completing a five-day visit to western Sudan and refugee camps in neighboring Chad.
Lubbers said his talks with various Sudanese officials in Darfur had focused on ending attacks against civilians by the Janjaweed militia, rather than disarming militia fighters. Lubbers said the first priority is to work for the immediate safety of civilians who are caught up in the violence.
"What, for me, is important is the way forward. And that is stopping the violence, reporting it and building confidence. Of course, the disarmament dimension is important. But I didn't see it as my function in these conversations to go into the technicalities of that," Lubbers said.
Nongovernmental organizations monitoring the situation in Darfur say the Janjaweed militia inevitably must be disarmed. Dan Vexler, a spokesman for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, told RFE/RL today that the real issue is how to bring about an end to the violence:
"The reason why disarmament is important is that most of the insecurity in Darfur has been caused by the Janjaweed militia, whom the government of Sudan hasn't been able or willing to rein in so far. So getting to zero violence would be a good first step. But disarming the militias will still be necessary," Vexler said.
The U.S. State Department's senior representative on Sudan, Charles Snyder, said it will take at least 18 months to disarm the Janjaweed militia and secure Darfur so that the displaced people can begin returning to their homes.
"My own view is that it's hard to give much credit to the government of Sudan when it is shooting civilians out of helicopters."
Lubbers said that before disarmament can move forward, there needs to be renewed peace talks between the government and antigovernment rebel groups in Darfur. Peace talks in the Nigerian capital of Abuja collapsed earlier this month, but are expected to reconvene around 21 October.
The UNHCR chief did warn that wider international efforts to restore security in Darfur could be possible if "the political will of the Sudanese authorities doesn't produce an ending of violence on the ground."
Earlier this month, the UN Security Council passed a U.S.-drafted resolution that threatens sanctions against Sudan's oil industry unless Khartoum quickly stops the violence and brings the perpetrators to justice.
U.S. President George W. Bush recently told the UN General Assembly that the United States considers the attacks against Darfur residents as genocide.
The U.S. ambassador to the UN, John Danforth, has alleged that Khartoum is directly involved in attacks against non-Arab civilians. "My own view is that it's hard to give much credit to the government of Sudan when it is shooting civilians out of helicopters," he said. "In other words, [Sudanese government forces are] taking off in helicopters, hovering over villages, and killing civilians."
Nomadic Arab tribes and mainly non-Arab farmers have clashed for years over scarce resources in the arid region of Darfur. Khartoum admits that it has armed some Arab militia groups to fight the antigovernment rebels who launched an outright revolt in February of 2003. But the Sudanese government denies any direct links to militia fighters who have been burning and looting entire villages.
Sudan's foreign minister yesterday accused the administration in Washington of inflating the severity of the crisis. Mustafa Osman Ismail said the Bush administration is using the issue to try to win votes from African-Americans and to deflect attention from growing insecurity in Iraq.
In Oslo yesterday, a senior Sudanese government official said his country urgently needs more than $300 million in aid from international donors to deal with the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. But Western officials say there should be a comprehensive peace deal before any donors conference is held.