updated 3/19/2004 7:51:55 PM ET 2004-03-20T00:51:55

A senior U.N. official said Friday that fighting in western Sudan has intensified in recent weeks, accusing Arab militia of systematically attacking villages and raping women.

Mukesh Kapila, the U.N. resident coordinator for Sudan, said that attacks against tribes in the Darfur region were “close to the definition of ethnic cleansing.”

“In my view this is the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis and possibly the world’s greatest humanitarian catastrophe,” Kapila told The Associated Press. “There has been systematic burning of villages and displacement of the population. There are reports of women being raped, other men and women disappearing.”

The U.S. envoy to Sudan, former Sen. John Danforth, also described the situation in Darfur as a “a true humanitarian disaster.” He said the crisis would have to be resolved before there can be normal relations between the United States and Sudan.

Arab militia attack
In one reported attack by the militia on Feb. 27, more than 100 women were raped in Tawilaa, a village in North Darfur, Kapila said, adding that his information was coming from international and Sudanese aid workers in the region.

Fighting has wreaked havoc across Darfur—a region the size of Iraq—since February 2003, when rebels took up arms and said they wanted a greater share of power and wealth in Africa’s largest country.

The rebels accuse President Omar el-Bashir’s Islamic government of arming and supporting the Arab militia, and carrying out a scorched-earth policy in the impoverished, underdeveloped region.

The government has denied the allegations.

But Kapila said the government could “exercise greater influence on the militia to curb the attacks on civilians.”

The traditional inhabitants of Darfur are Muslims from African tribes, but the region is also home to Arab nomads.

Forced to flee
More than 800,000 people, mostly of African descent, have been forced to flee their homes and unknown numbers of civilians have been killed in the violence.

Kapila, whose 14-month assignment in Sudan will be finished at the end of March, called on the warring parties to agree to a cease-fire, which, he said, should be internationally monitored.

Danforth spoke after meeting negotiators at peace talks in Kenya between the Sudanese government and rebels fighting a 21-year civil war in southern Sudan.

The war in Darfur has intensified as those talks have inched toward their conclusion. More than 110,000 Sudanese have fled to eastern Chad to escape the violence.

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