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Google maps the Darfur crisis

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Also, aid workers in or near Darfur who might be in the best position to use satellite imagery to keep tabs on their projects often don't have the speedy Internet access that Google Earth's service requires. Government officials in Sudan are famously thick-skinned about Western criticism about Darfur, which they regard as an internal and spontaneous ethnic conflict. Will Google Earth succeed where Condoleezza Rice and actress-activist Mia Farrow have failed?

"The problem in Darfur is not a lack of information, and it's not a lack of understanding of the magnitude of the problem," says Peter Kagwanja, a senior analyst at the Human Sciences Research Council in Tshwane, South Africa. "[The problem is] a lack of action by the international community," he says.

"If this is updated day by day, and you can detect that something is happening, then it might stop [Sudan] from doing some things, because you do things differently if you know that someone is watching you," says Mr. Kagwanja.

The problem with satellite technology, Kagwanja says, is that it can only show the physical signs of conflict, not the motive behind it. "The question is whether these pictures might play into Khartoum's propaganda of portraying this as armored clashes between communities, as spontaneous clashes and not a genocide financed or directed by governments. This is a question that Google Earth cannot answer."

Google Earth's new service comes at a time when international journalists are finding it increasingly difficult to cover the unfolding tragedy in Darfur. Jonah Fisher, the BBC's Sudan correspondent, has been told his work permit will not be renewed when it expires Friday.

He ran into trouble with the government in November when he traveled to the Darfur border with Chad to report on atrocities committed by militias there.

Mohamed Guyo, an analyst with the Institute for Security Studies in Nairobi, says he would like to see similar systems developed across Africa where press freedom is often limited.

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