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(New York) - The Sudanese government is complicit in crimes against humanity committed by government-backed militias in Darfur, Human Rights Watch said today in a new report. In a scorched-earth campaign, government forces and Arab militias are killing, raping and looting African civilians that share the same ethnicities as rebel forces in this western region of Sudan.

The report, “Darfur in Flames: Atrocities in Western Sudan,” describes a government strategy of forced displacement targeting civilians of the non-Arab ethnic communities from which the two main rebel groups—the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM)—are mainly drawn. Human Rights Watch found that the military is indiscriminately bombing civilians, while both government forces and militias are systematically destroying villages and conducting brutal raids against the Fur, Masaalit and Zaghawa ethnic groups.

“The Sudanese military and government-backed militias are committing massive human rights violations daily in the western region of Darfur,” said Georgette Gagnon, deputy director for the Africa division of Human Rights Watch. “The government’s campaign of terror has already forcibly displaced one million innocent civilians, and the numbers are increasing by the day.”

Human Rights Watch called on the government of Sudan to immediately disarm and disband the militias, and allow international humanitarian groups access to provide relief to the displaced persons.

The government has recruited and armed over 20,000 militiamen of Arab descent and operates jointly with these militias, known as “janjaweed,” in attacks on civilians from the Fur, Masaalit, and Zaghawa ethnic groups. In the past year, nearly one million civilians have fled their rural villages. Most are displaced into towns and camps where they continue to be murdered, raped and looted by the militias.

Although Arab and African communities in Darfur for decades have intermittently clashed over land and scarce resources, the current conflict began 14 months ago when two new rebel groups emerged. The Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) demanded that the Sudanese government stop arming the Arab groups in Darfur and address longstanding grievances over underdevelopment in the region.

In response, the government launched a massive bombing campaign which, combined with the raids of the marauding militias, have forced more than 800,000 people from their homes and sent an additional 110,000 people into neighboring Chad.

In a scorched-earth campaign, government forces and militias have killed several thousand Fur, Zaghawa and Masaalit civilians, routinely raped women and girls, abducted children, and looted tens of thousands of head of cattle and other property. In many areas of Darfur, they have deliberately burned hundreds of villages and destroyed water sources and other infrastructure, making it much harder for the former residents to return.

“The militias are not only killing individuals, they are decimating the livelihoods of tens of thousands of families,” Gagnon said. “The people being targeted are the farmers of the region, and unless these abuses are stopped and people receive humanitarian relief, we could see famine in a few months’ time.”

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan should request the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights to immediately dispatch a mission of inquiry to investigate the situation in Darfur, Human Rights Watch said. The mission should report back to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, currently meeting in Geneva, before the end of its session on April 23. Human Rights Watch urged the U.N. Commission on Human Rights to adopt a resolution—under item 9—to appoint a special rapporteur for human rights in Sudan.

The report describes how government forces allow the janjaweed to operate with full impunity. Government forces fail to protect civilians even when these unarmed people have appealed to the military and police forces, warning that their villages were about to be attacked. Government forces and janjaweed have also obstructed the flight of civilians escaping to Chad.

“The Khartoum government has tried to repress this rebellion with lightning speed in hope that the international community wouldn’t have time to mobilize and press the government to halt its devastation of Darfur,” added Gagnon, “But the Sudanese government will still have to answer for crimes against humanity that cannot be ignored.”

The Sudan peace talks in Kenya convened by the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an intergovernmental body of East African countries, are limited to the two main parties to the 20-year conflict in Southern Sudan. The peace talks do not include Darfur or the Darfurian rebels. Taking advantage of the internationally regulated ceasefire in the south, the Sudanese government has shifted its attack helicopters and other heavy weapons, purchased with oil revenue from the south, to the western region of Darfur.

The government’s indiscriminate bombing, scorched-earth military campaign, and denial of access to humanitarian assistance in Darfur reflects the same deadly strategy employed in the south, with yet more rapid dislocation and devastation than witnessed or experienced there.

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