updated 8/10/2004 8:02:32 PM ET 2004-08-11T00:02:32

Sudan’s government is gutting its pledge to improve security in the embattled Darfur region by barring international aid and taking militias blamed for atrocities into the police forces rather than disarming them, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday.

The report, “Empty Promises: Continuing Abuses in Darfur, Sudan,” said Sudanese troops and government-backed militias of Arab nomads continued to attack the region’s African farm communities, killing, raping and stealing with impunity.

“The Sudanese government insists that it is taking significant measures, but the continuing atrocities in Darfur prove that Khartoum’s claims simply aren’t credible,” said Peter Takirambudde, executive director for Human Rights Watch’s Africa Division.

“If the government were serious about wanting to protect civilians, it would welcome a greater international presence,” he added.

Government disputes report
But Sudan’s ambassador to London, Hasan Abdin, insisted that his government was taking action against Darfur’s Arab militias, known as the Janjaweed.

“My government has promised to finish the job which it started a few weeks ago on disarming the Janjaweed. Practical steps have been taken already,” he said on Channel 4 TV.

Sudan signed an agreement Tuesday with the United Nations giving it 30 days to establish safe havens for African farmers. Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail said he was confident that the government could implement the plan on time and restore stability to Darfur, where U.N. officials estimate that more than 30,000 people have been slain and a million others have been chased from their homes.

“We are now optimistic that we can go through this phase, depending on cooperation instead of conflict,” Ismail told reporters in Khartoum, the capital. “The implementation will take place in a transparent fashion.”

However, a U.N. official in Geneva said Tuesday that the Arab militias were continuing to attack, even using helicopter gunships.

“There was some helicopter fighting, and because of that fighting, more people were displaced,” Elizabeth Byrs of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs told The Associated Press.

Amnesty International, meanwhile, said Tuesday that Sudan’s government was pressing people not to report human rights abuses in Darfur. Authorities have arrested 49 people since June 30 for speaking out about rights abuses in the region, the London-based rights group said.

World’s worst humanitarian crisis
The United Nations has described the 18-month-old conflict in the sprawling, arid region of Darfur as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

The region’s nomadic Arab tribes have long been at odds with their African farming neighbors over dwindling resources, particularly water and usable land, and Darfur plunged into bloodshed when two African groups rebelled in February 2003 over what they regarded as unjust treatment by the government.

Since then, armed bands of herders, most of them Arabs, have torched village after village. The U.S. Agency for International Development has warned that the death toll could surge to 350,000 or more if aid does not reach 2 million people soon.

A U.N. Security Council resolution demanded July 30 that the government improve security, human rights and humanitarian assistance in Darfur and speed a political resolution of the conflict. It also imposed a deadline of Aug. 30 to disarm the Janjaweed.

However, the Human Rights Watch report said the government appeared to be backtracking on that timeline and was beginning to absorb Janjaweed fighters into the police and other security forces.

“Incorporating the Janjaweed militias into the security services and then deploying them to protect civilian ‘safe areas’ is the height of absurdity,” Takirambudde said. “The Sudanese government needs to bring war criminals to justice, not recruit them into positions of responsibility.”

The report said claims by Sudan’s government that it was cracking down through trials of Janjaweed militiamen were undercut by growing reports that most of those who were convicted were petty criminals.

Meanwhile, Byrs, the U.N. official, warned that a plague of locusts sweeping across Africa could soon reach the region, causing further hardship for the people of Darfur, particularly the 1 million refugees.

Byrs said the locusts had appeared in western Chad after causing serious crop damage in Mauritania, Mali and Niger. She said she did not know how long it would take for the swarms to travel the 500 miles across Chad to Darfur, but the locusts have been moving at up to 60 miles a day.

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