KHARTOUM, Sudan - Warning that thousands of people are on the brink of death, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell pressed leaders here yesterday to disarm militias marauding the country's Darfur region and to provide immediate access for humanitarian workers trying to aid more than 1 million people driven from their homes.
"They've got to act now because we are running out of time," Powell told reporters on his plane en route to the Sudanese capital, adding that he would deliver a "very direct message" to President Omar el-Bashir and other officials in meetings last night at the president's residence.
"We need to see action promptly because people are dying and the death rate is going to go up significantly over the next several months," he said.
After he emerged from a meeting with el-Bashir, Powell said the president promised "to remove any bureaucratic impediments" blocking emergency relief. But a senior U.S. official traveling with Powell expressed skepticism about the pledge.
"He [el-Bashir] promised these things several weeks ago, and we have not seen any evidence that things have changed on the ground," said the senior U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The United States says the Sudanese government has blocked relief efforts since the crisis began last year, making an emergency assessment team wait weeks for the necessary paperwork to travel to Darfur, in western Sudan.
Powell is pressing the government to help ease what U.S. officials call the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, warning of further sanctions, a new U.N. Security Council resolution further isolating Sudan and other consequences.
"I think everybody realizes the nature of the catastrophe that is on our hands," he said.
An estimated 1.1 million people, mostly from three African ethnic groups, have been driven from their homes in at least 376 villages and towns, which were razed or severely damaged in what the United States considers an ethnic-cleansing campaign.
Government-backed Arab militiamen, known as the Janjaweed, sweep in on horseback, burning buildings and crops, killing cattle, destroying irrigation systems and poisoning wells. Up to 30,000 people, almost all of them men, have been killed in the attacks, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development.
The U.S. government and aid groups have also documented continuing attacks against camps for the victims. Doctors Without Borders, said yesterday that the "number and proportion of rape victims treated by MSF has increased" in the past month at the Mornay camp, where 80,000 people are seeking relief.
Although Sudanese officials deny complicity in the campaign, the United States says the government arms and supports the Arab militias and Sudanese military forces have assisted in some of the attacks.
Powell said his priority is to persuade el-Bashir to do whatever is necessary to bring security to the region, by disarming the militias and sending out government forces to protect the camps.
Without security, Powell warned, international efforts to deliver food and medicine will continue to be stymied, and thousands will face calamity as the rainy season arrives in the next couple of weeks.
"The demographics are such that some of these people have been condemned to death already," Powell said. "They will die in August or September, and there is nothing we can do to stop that. So we have got to act now, not later. We can't talk. We have to see action."
Mortality and malnutrition studies in some of the camps have led to USAID estimates that at least 300,000 people will die this year if nothing changes.
Mustafa Osman Ismail, the Sudanese foreign minister, sought to downplay the crisis to reporters after a meeting with Powell last night.
"There is no famine. There is no epidemic of diseases," he said. "But that does not mean there is no humanitarian problem."
State Department lawyers in Washington are reviewing whether activities in Darfur meet the legal definition of genocide.
Such a determination could lead to war crimes charges against government and militia leaders. Powell plans to visit Darfur today and will meet with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who went to Khartoum at Powell's request. The United States has initiated talks at the Security Council on a new resolution aimed at pressing the Sudanese to disarm the militias and impose other sanctions.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.