Rice says there is progress in Darfur crisis

United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the US is making a difference to relieve a refugee crisis and African peacekeeping troops are helping to stop atrocities in Sudan’s ravaged Darfur province.

“We are not where we were a year ago,” Rice said on Wednesday, ahead of her first trip to Sudan as secretary of state. “We are in a different circumstance and the United States has spent a great deal of money and a lot of diplomatic and other energy to try and bring this conflict to a conclusion.”

War-induced hunger and disease have killed more than 180 000 people and driven more than two million from their homes in what Rice reaffirmed on Wednesday was a case of genocide.

Rice was touring a refugee camp in Darfur, a vast province in western Sudan, on Thursday, and meeting privately with women to discuss recurring sexual violence against women refugees. The camp, Abu Shouk, is the second-largest in Sudan, with more than 70 000 residents in mud brick huts.

In the capital, Khartoum, Rice was meeting with Sudanese leaders, including the president.
The United States blames his government for recruiting and equipping militiamen to massacre rural villagers and burn their homes in Darfur.

President Omar el-Bashir denies government involvement, but the US and international organisations say his military sent helicopter gunships to bomb small villages before militiamen swept in with horses, guns and knives.

Some militiamen wore uniforms provided by the Sudanese Army, US Agency for International Development Administrator Andrew Natsios said on Wednesday.

Sudan formed a new reconciliation government this month, following a peace agreement to end a 21-year civil war between the Muslim north and the mainly Christian and animist south that killed an estimated two million people.

That conflict was separate from the Darfur killing, which began after black African tribes took up arms in February 2003, complaining of discrimination and oppression by Sudan’s Arab-dominated government. The Sudanese government then allegedly responded by backing a counterinsurgency by Arab militia known as

the Janjaweed.

El-Bashir remains in charge of the new government with former rebel leader John Garang installed as a new vice president. On Tuesday, Garang dissolved his guerrilla movement and dismissed all government officials in 10 former rebel-controlled southern states.

The United States has held the Arab-dominated former government at arm’s length, operating an embassy without a full ambassador and listing Sudan, Africa’s largest country, among the nations sponsoring terrorism.

Still, the Bush administration has made Sudan a focus of diplomatic and humanitarian efforts, with $700-million spent for humanitarian needs over the past two years. The United States also supplies logistical help for African troops newly installed as peacekeepers.

The period of “ethnic cleansing” has largely ended, Natsios said, and the Darfur crisis has now shifted to peacekeeping and the administration of huge refugee camps.

“The level of attacks has clearly diminished,” Natsios said.

“The major reason for that, frankly, is there are not many villages left to burn down and destroy.”

The United Nations has estimated that 2 000 Sudanese villages have been completely or partially destroyed.

In addition to short-term humanitarian needs, the United States and others are trying to prevent the temporary camps from becoming permanent fixtures in Darfur.

“I think the people in those camps want to go home,” Natsios said, although some refugee organisations say that is far from universally true.

“They want their land back and they want their animals back,” Natsios said.

He acknowledged that the camps can be attractive for people without many resources, and that some Sudanese city dwellers who were not victims of the Janjaweed have moved in to take advantage of food and services, including education. - Sapa-AP

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