Excerpt from commentary by Katharine Houreld, Christian Science Monitor (hat tip Sudan Man
Nov 17, 2006 (AL-FASHIR) - The African Union patrol was only seven miles from Sirba, the site of one of the latest Darfur massacres, when they were forced to turn back. Nearly 400 Arab militiamen in Sudanese government uniforms, with new Land Cruisers and weapons, blocked the dusty track.
Tuesday's incident was only the latest in a crackdown on access for international observers, journalists, and humanitarian organizations - a pattern that is becoming wearily familiar to those working in Darfur. "The timing is no coincidence," says Leslie Lefkow of Human Rights Watch. "[Sudan is] stemming the flow of information from Darfur while it continues to commit massive crimes and run a military campaign."
As outgoing UN chief Kofi Annan began a major push to stem the escalating crisis during high-level meetings in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Thursday, the Sudanese government told top UN humanitarian official Jan Egeland that all his proposed destinations on a three-day trip to Darfur are too insecure to visit this weekend.
Last week, the Norwegian Refugee Council announced it was being forced out of Darfur after its permit to operate had been indefinitely suspended for the fifth time, making working conditions "impossible." Other foreign aid workers say they have been denied permission to reenter the country after leaving to attend a family emergency or to seek medical treatment.
Thirty villagers were reported killed this week in Sirba, but no outside investigators have been able to enter the town to confirm the reports. Sudanese rebels accused government troops and militias Thursday of killing more than 50 people in another attack. Two weeks ago, 63 people were reported killed in Jebel Moon, and their bodies buried in the desert.
In that case, investigators were able to access the massacre site, and found that more than 20 of the victims were children. Some of them had been shot through the head. Survivors described Arab men in uniforms, with Thuraya satellite phones, new vehicles, and animals, similar to the group seen only a few miles away barring the road to Sirba.
After the government signed a peace deal with one of the three rebel factions last May, the militias, known as the janjaweed, were supposed to be disarmed. Instead, the government appears to be using them as a proxy force to avoid accusations of cease-fire violations. But accurate reporting of militia movements, and alleged massacres, is becoming increasingly difficult.
Journalists able to secure a visa face a bewildering array of permits and paperwork; the Sudanese government must be informed in advance of any travel in Darfur. Officials insist on listening to interviews; they intimidate interviewees, and have attempted to confiscate notebooks.
"I can take any of [your permits] I want ... you're going to hell," one official hissed at this reporter. "Do you think this is a free country?" Last week, all permits for journalists to travel to the region were being denied.
The African Union (AU) monitoring force of nearly 7,000 soldiers is also frequently stymied in its investigative attempts. Officials say fuel is stolen, government permission for them to leave their bases is refused, and their soldiers have been killed when convoys were attacked.
During the one-day talks in Ethiopia with UN, EU, and Arab League officials Thursday, Mr. Annan pushed for a "hybrid" force of AU and UN peacekeepers to be allowed into Darfur. But early indications were that Sudan would reject this.