updated 3/9/2005 8:45:39 PM ET 2005-03-10T01:45:39

Far more people have died in Sudan’s ravaged Darfur region than the 70,000 reported since last year, and many of those deaths were from preventable causes such as pneumonia and diarrhea, the U.N. humanitarian chief said Wednesday.

Getting an accurate count of the dead from Darfur’s two-year conflict has been extremely difficult because of the size and remoteness of much of the region. It is known that thousands have died from the fighting and many thousands more from disease or hunger.

The U.N. humanitarian chief, Jan Egeland, said the 70,000 figure was released when there were 1 million internally displaced people in Darfur, but that number has now doubled to some 2 million. As the number of people who have fled increases, the number who die of malnutrition or a host of other reasons also goes up, he said.

“Is it three times that? Is it five times that? I don’t know, but it’s several times the number of 70,000 that have died altogether,” Egeland told reporters shortly after returning from a four-day trip to the region.

Disease is killer No. 1
“The biggest killer has been systematical, I think, in Darfur — diarrhea, pneumonia and many other preventable diseases.”

The Darfur conflict began after two non-Arab rebel groups took up arms against the Arab-dominated government in February 2003 to win more political and economic rights for the region’s African tribes.

Sudan’s government is accused of responding by backing the Janjaweed militia in a campaign of wide-scale abuses, including rape and killings, against Sudanese of African origin. The government denies backing the Janjaweed.

Security improving, U.N. says
The U.N. mission to Sudan said Wednesday that security in Darfur has improved since last month but human rights abuses continue, particularly rapes.

“The security situation in February was better than in January and the first week of March seems to follow that pattern,” U.N. spokesman Leon Williams told reporters in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum.

“It is too early to speak of a trend, and many concerns remain,” he said, referring to abductions of relief workers and attacks on commercial trucks.

Egeland repeatedly has prodded international donors to contribute more money for Darfur and the rest of Sudan, which only now is recovering from a devastating civil war between the north and the south, separate from the Darfur conflict.

A peace agreement signed last year ending the 21-year civil war will remain vulnerable unless more money is given, Egeland said.

“We were yearning for a generation for this peace agreement. The peace agreement comes and then some governments sit on the fence scratching their head and say, ’What should we do now?”’ Egeland said.

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