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World turns attention to Darfur

The US may designate western Sudan fighting a 'genocide'; Europe has sent money for observers.

After more than a year of virtually ignoring the biggest humanitarian crisis on the planet, the world's most powerful nations are suddenly paying attention to the conflict in western Sudan.

The central question now is: Will their statements and threats be enough to prevent more ethnic killings and help more than 1 million displaced people avoid illness and starvation in refugee camps during the oncoming rainy season? Already, these countries have upped the ante.

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• Leaders of the world's top economies at the G-8 summit last week called on Sudan's government to disarm Arab militias that have been carrying out "gross human rights violations" against black farmers in Darfur.

• Secretary of State Colin Powell is reportedly considering using the term "genocide" to describe the conflict, which would boost pressure on the United Nations to act.

• The UN Security Council has been debating a resolution on the issue.

• The European Union will give $14.5 million toward an observer mission led by the African Union, a kind of UN of Africa. It will include 120 observers and 270 soldiers and will monitor a shaky April 8 cease-fire between rebels and the government.

It all represents a sea change in how the world views Darfur, says John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group in Washington. "It's a whole lot more than we had two weeks ago," he adds. And it stems from many things, including increased media coverage and President Bush directing his staff to work on the issue. Yet despite the attention, Mr. Prendergast says, "It's not even close to being enough to deal with this crisis."

Indeed, observers say it will take more to fix the crisis. For one thing, Sudan's government sees the rebellion by two Darfur rebel groups as a threat to its existence, so it may take serious diplomatic strong-arming to get it to rein in Arab militias it's supposedly been backing. Also, the US appears to be leading the international charge on the issue, but America's international credibility has been damaged over Iraq. So it may have a hard time pushing the global community to act decisively.

For instance, Sudan's powerful Vice President Ali Osman Taha lambasted the country's critics last week in Cairo. He reportedly accused outside powers of "fabricating" the Darfur crisis.

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It's interesting that Mr. Taha used the word "fabricating," especially in Cairo, the cultural hub of the Arab world, says Mr. Prendergast. It may be an effort to link the Sudan situation to US credibility problems over Iraq, he explains.

The approach may be working. In the UN Security Council, there appears to be some debate between the US and countries like France, Russia, and China over what tactics to use. A declaration of "genocide" by Mr. Powell would almost certainly necessitate sending in troops.

This despite consistent evidence of violent oppression. In May, a Human Rights Watch report accused the government of overseeing, or directly participating in, "massacres, summary executions of civilians - including women and children" as well as "burnings of towns and villages, and the forcible depopulation of wide swaths of land" in Darfur.

For many years, this was a low-level conflict between Arab cattle owners and black farmers over the little good land in a forbidding region near the Sahara desert. But in February 2003, black tribespeople took up arms against Sudan's government to protest years of economic marginalization. That's when the government apparently urged Arab militias to attack black tribes. Survivors have told of Sudanese planes strafing villages followed by Arabs on horseback raping and pillaging. Some 130,000 refugees have fled into neighboring Chad.

Meanwhile, one of the government's most powerful critics, a Muslim cleric named Hassan Turabi, apparently made common cause with one of the Darfur rebel groups. This sparked concern among Sudan's leaders - and may explain the government's harsh tactics.

But the outside world has been reluctant to push on Darfur, says Robert Rotberg, an Africa scholar at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., because "they didn't want to upset the peace apple cart" in Sudan's other conflict, the 21-year war between northern Muslims and black southern Christians. That war has been halted, and the parties are moving toward full peace. Earlier this month, both sides agreed to a six-year transitional government, at the end of which southerners will hold a referendum on whether they want to secede. Negotiators will meet in Kenya starting June 22 to iron out a comprehensive final agreement, which will determine the timetable for implementing the pact.

Now that there's international willingness to deal with the Darfur crisis, Mr. Rotberg says, potential solutions could range from targeting Sudanese leaders for "crimes against humanity" to sending African troops to ensure a safe return for refugees. If the cease-fire holds, and "If people can go back to their homes," he says, "then the refugee situation ends, and you have a peaceful resolution."


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