(New York) - Recent attacks on villages in West Darfur that have left more than 150 people dead highlight the urgent need for all sides to respect the rules of war and protect civilians, Human Rights Watch said today.

On February 8, Sudanese government forces and allied militia launched fresh attacks on villages in the northern corridor of West Darfur. Initial reports from sources in West Darfur indicate that at least 150 people were killed in the attacks, which also left thousands of villagers without food or shelter. The attacks were carried out by Janjaweed militia and Sudanese ground troops, supported by attack helicopters and aerial bombardments.

“The Sudanese government is once again showing its total disregard for the safety of civilians,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “This return to large-scale attacks on villages will be catastrophic for Darfur’s civilians, because they’re completely unprotected.”

Since December, the northern corridor of West Darfur has been the site of repeated clashes between the Sudanese government forces and the rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). In December, JEM took control of several key villages north of the capital of West Darfur, Al Geneina, and at one point claimed they were poised to take over the capital.

The government and allied militias have responded by indiscriminately attacking villages without distinguishing between the civilian population and rebel combatants, in violation of international humanitarian law.

On January 22, government and allied forces attacked Saraf Jidad, a town of 15,000, killing more than 20 civilians, including three women. In the most recent attack on February 8, the Sudanese government forces and militia attacked the villages of Abu Suruj, Sirba, and Silea. Some civilians who had fled the earlier attack in Saraf Jidad had sought shelter in Abu Suruj, only to be attacked again.

Because of the fighting, humanitarian agencies have not been able to reach the area for the past month. As a result, about 160,000 civilians in northern West Darfur are not receiving essential humanitarian assistance, putting their lives at risk. Under international humanitarian law all parties to a conflict have an obligation to facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief to civilians.

The recent attacks underscore the urgent need for deployment of a robust international protection force. The hybrid United Nations African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) has faced numerous obstacles to deployment, including deliberate obstruction by the government of Sudan, and has yet to add significant additional troops or establish positions in northern West Darfur to provide protection to civilians.

“People in West Darfur are completely at the mercy of the armed groups,” Gagnon said. “The Sudanese government’s own police pulled out in December because of the fighting, and the UN force simply doesn’t have the capacity to protect them.”

Human Rights Watch called on all parties to the conflict to ensure that civilians are not placed at risk and to ensure the safety of humanitarian agencies seeking to provide assistance to those affected by the conflict. Human Rights Watch also called on Sudan to cease its obstructive policy towards further UNAMID deployment and for UNAMID’s capacity to be enhanced to allow better civilian protection.