updated 11/10/2005 11:43:47 PM ET 2005-11-11T04:43:47

A senior U.S. envoy got into a shouting match with a Darfur government official Thursday over peacemaking in the restive region of western Sudan.

Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick had just listened to African Union military observers describe a recent outbreak of violence that had turned southern Darfur’s Shek en Nil into a ghost village of burned out homes, and heard local leaders profess their commitment to peace.

Regional commissioner Sadiek Abdel Nabi followed as Zoellick stepped away for what was to have been a private additional African Union briefing in the remnants of a village home.

An angry Zoellick ordered Nabi out, saying: “I want to hear a straight story ... and I can’t trust your government.”

When Nabi refused, Zoellick said he would protest to President Omar el-Bashir.

“I am Bashir here!” Nabi shouted three times in English, standing inches from Zoellick. Nabi previously had relied on an Arab translator.

An AU officer persuaded Nabi to back off, and Zoellick heard details of three attacks on Shek en Nil in late September — all violations of a tattered cease-fire.

In the first attack, Sudan Liberation Movement rebels took the area. Days later, government troops retook it and were in control when so-called Janjaweed militiamen swept in for the third attack on Shek en Nil, burning and looting the homes of civilians and raping women, according to AU observers.

Nabi and other local officials did not address the implication that the army and the Arab tribal militias known as Janjaweed had colluded. The government has repeatedly denied accusations it unleashed the Janjaweed as a tactic in the war.

Clashes over land, water
After decades of clashes over land and water in Darfur that often pitted the region’s ethnic Arab tribes against its ethnic African tribes, conflict erupted on a wider scale in February 2003. Then, the Sudan Liberation Movement and the other major rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement, took up arms against the Sudanese government amid accusations of repression and unfair distribution of wealth.

The United Nations estimates that 180,000 people have died, mainly through famine and disease. Several million more have either fled into neighboring Chad or been displaced inside Sudan.

Zoellick later Thursday visited one of the camps for the displaced, where rape and other violence against women is common. The Janjaweed sometimes attack the camps.

Four hours before Zoellick arrived at Kalma camp, some 50 Arab men on horseback reportedly went in and shot one man dead while searching for cattle they claimed were stolen.

The presence of smaller, armed groups and a split within the rebel Sudan Liberation Movement has made the situation even more volatile.

Zoellick has pressed the rebels to resolve their feud.

Some 7,000 African Union peacekeepers deployed to stabilize Darfur have been unable to stem the spike in violence, because they do not have enough troops, proper military hardware and means for rapid movement in the region the size of France, Jan Pronk, the special U.N. envoy to Sudan, said after meeting with Zoellick Wednesday in Khartoum.

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