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U.N. chief ‘humbled’ by Darfur refugee camp

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said Wednesday he was “shocked and humbled” by a visit to a Darfur refugee camp where thousands cheered him as he pledged to step up efforts to bring peace to the war-torn region.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is greeted by Sudanese women upon his arrival at north Darfur capital of El Fasher
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he would push for progress in peace talks between the Sudanese government and rebel groups, while laying the ground for deployment of a 26,000-strong "hybrid" force of U.N. and African Union peacekeepers.Zohra Bensemra / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said Wednesday he was “shocked and humbled” by a visit to a Darfur refugee camp where thousands cheered him as he pledged to step up efforts to bring peace to the war-torn region.

Thousands of refugees at Al Salaam camp in North Darfur chanted “Welcome! Welcome Ban Ki-Moon!” when the U.N. chief entered the camp, home to 46,000 refugees.

“We must bring peace and development. We must protect human rights. We must help all of you return to your homes and lands,” Ban told the crowd at a water tower in the camp.

The scene contrasted with his visit earlier Wednesday to the U.N. compound in El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur, which was disrupted by a group of about a dozen protesters.

“We don’t care for U.N.! This is our country!” the group of mostly women shouted in Arabic in what appeared to be an orchestrated event. “You want to destroy us. We will not allow you here in Darfur.”

The clamor raised security concerns, forcing Ban to change part of his schedule Wednesday. But after returning from the refugee camp later in the day, the U.N. chief focused on the plight of the Darfur victims.

“I was so shocked and humbled ... I was shocked at the poverty and hardship all these tens of thousands of people were undergoing. I really wanted to give them even a small sign of hope,” Ban told reporters.

Ban promised to step up efforts to end the protracted conflict that has killed more than 200,000 people and left more than 2.5 million displaced and urged the world to be more sympathetic to the millions whose lives have been uprooted.

“I really urge the international community to help them return to their homes and land, give them a sense of security and bring peace as soon as possible. We must bring enduring peace, durable peace and security here,” he said.

Ban urges peace
The trip to Darfur and the rest of Sudan is Ban’s first since taking over as U.N. chief in January. He said he would discuss what he saw at Al Salaam during talks Thursday with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and other government officials in Khartoum.

Ban said his visit “made my resolve stronger and firmer to work for peace and security in Darfur.”

The trip comes at a time when the U.N. and the African Union are pressing to deploy a 26,000-strong joint peacekeeping force in Darfur and restart peace negotiations between the government and splintered rebel groups.

The U.N. Security Council in July unanimously approved the peacekeeping mission, which, if fully deployed, would be the world’s largest operation of its kind, to help end four years of violence in the vast western Sudan desert region.

The force is expected to be made up mostly of peacekeepers from Africa, with backup from Asian troops.

Sudan had resisted a push for U.N. peacekeepers to replace the overwhelmed African Union force currently deployed in Darfur. Ban said earlier in his Sudan trip that al-Bashir has accepted the deployment of the joint U.N.-AU force, but many are wary of al-Bashir’s past record.

Violent history
Darfur’s bloodletting began in 2003, when ethnic African rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated central government, accusing it of discrimination. Khartoum is accused of retaliating by unleashing janjaweed militias, blamed for the worst atrocities against civilians. The government denies the accusations.

In recent weeks, the Sudanese government has stepped up a campaign to have Darfurians in the camps voluntarily return home. But a key concern keeping the millions of refugees from leaving the camps is lack of security — a main reason for the deployment of the U.N.-African Union force.

During Ban’s stop at the compound of the North Darfur governor, a small group of pro-government supporters handed him a letter saying they wanted the U.N. to do more to help the refugees return home.

North Darfur Governor Mohamed Kebir told reporters that “many conditions are now ripe” for people to return from the camps to their villages.

“Of course, there are a lot of remaining issues to be settled in cooperation with the (U.N.) Security Council in order that the return is massive and durable,” Kebir said after meeting Ban earlier Wednesday.

African Union officials expressed concern over the decreasing size of the force, telling Ban Wednesday it now has less then 6,000 peacekeepers — down from its authorized strength of 7,000.

African Union officials said the groundwork for deploying a joint African Union-U.N. force is on schedule, but it isn’t expected to start arriving in Darfur until early next year.