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UNHCR boss urges Sudan to give Darfur autonomy

UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers (IRIN)

Ruud Lubbers, the head of the UN refugee agency UNHCR, has urged the Sudanese government to give autonomy to the western Darfur region to help end a rebellion there which has led to massive reprisals by Arab militias against black African villagers.

Lubbers first issued the call for autonomy in Darfur in an interview with the BBC on Thursday night. He repeated it on arrival in Chad on Friday at the start of a visit to camps hosting 200,000 refugees from Darfur in the east of the country.

"My gut feeling is the best would be that Sudan finds itself in a way where it accepts relative autonomies of regions," the former Dutch prime minister told the BBC.

Lubbers, who has a reputation for being outspoken, developed this idea at a press conference on arrival in the Chadian capital N'djamena a few hours later.

"It is important to find solutions for moving forward," he said. "It is a question of sharing power up to a certain point. It doesn't amount to putting the territorial integrity of the Sudan at risk".

"This country is engaged in negotiating a power-sharing deal with rebels in the south," Lubbers observed.

"This experience is important for allowing the population of Darfur to move forward. I don't see that sharing power should create a big problem for the territorial integrity of Sudan. There are many big countries which have evolved by sharing power between the capital and the regions."

His remarks, which followed the collapse of peace talks between Khartoum and the Darfur rebels in Abuja, Nigeria, last week, drew a favourable initial reaction from the Sudanese government.

Welcoming Lubbers' comments, Sudanese Justice Minister Ali Osman Yassin told the BBC: "The deal brokered with the south contains guiding principles for the idea of establishing a federal government with broader powers for the states, similar to the powers given to the south of Sudan."

The United Nations estimates that about 50,000 people have died during the 19-month-old conflict in Darfur, a sparsely populated area of semi-desert the size of France.

A further 1.4 million have been made homeless as the pro-government Janjawid militia forces, supported by air force bombers and helicopter gunships, have atttacked villages of Zaghawa, Fur and Masalit tribesmen and have driven them from their homes.

The United States has accused Khartoum of allowing the Arab Janjawid militiamen to commit genocide against Darfur's black African population, but Lubbers would not be drawn on this emotive use of language.

"People have talked about genocide as well as ethnic cleansing. Whether or not it is genocide or ethnic cleansing, what is happening in Darfur is serious," he said. "It doesn't do any good to debate such issues. The important thing is to stop the violence."

The UN World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated earlier this month that 10,000 people were dying each month in Darfur as a result of the conflict, mostly of disease and hunger.

Lubbers, who was due to tour the refugee camps in eastern Chad at the weekend, appealed for more international aid to help the 200,000 Sudanese who have fled over the border.

"We have seen an enormous increase in the number of Sudanese refugees," he said. "When I was here six months ago there were just 50,000….There is a problem of financial resources. Where will we find the means to provide more help to these refugees? How will we find a solution because Chad is a poor country? There is also an additional problem: infrastructure must be put in place that is available for the people of eastern Chad who are living with the refugees as well as the population that has been displaced."

Last month the UN Organisation for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) trebled its appeal for funds to help the Darfur refugees to US$166 million until the end of this year. It had previously sought $54 million for the refugees in March.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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