UNITED NATIONS (AP) — An escalation in fighting in Darfur has forced 138,000 people to flee their homes since mid-January and there is no end in sight to the 13-year conflict in Sudan's vast western region, the U.N. peacekeeping chief said Wednesday.
Herve Ladsous painted a grim picture to the U.N. Security Council of the upsurge in fighting in Darfur's Jebel Marra area between Sudanese government forces and rebels loyal to the Sudan Liberation Army's founder Abdul Wahid Elnur. The government has blocked access to the joint U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force known as UNAMID and humanitarian organizations, so the number of casualties is unknown, he said.
The Security Council briefing follows a report from U.N. experts monitoring sanctions against Sudan dated mid-December that has been circulated to council members but not released because of Russian objections to some recommendations. The report, obtained by The Associated Press, said armed groups in Darfur are capitalizing on gold mined in the region to illicitly raise funds.
Darfur, which is the size of Spain, has been in turmoil since 2003, when ethnic Africans rebelled, accusing the Arab-dominated Sudanese government of discrimination. Khartoum is accused of retaliating by arming local nomadic Arab tribes known as the the janjaweed and unleashing them on civilian populations — a charge the government denies. The United Nations says at least 300,000 people have died in the conflict and 2.6 million have fled their homes.
Ladsous, the undersecretary-general for peacekeeping, said the security situation in other parts of Darfur remains "fragile" with persistent conflicts between local tribes over land, water and other resources.
He said the political process remains "polarized" and urged the government and Abdul Wahid to immediately stop fighting in Jebel Marra and start peace negotiations without conditions.
"The pursuit of political objectives through military means over the past decade has only contributed to the prolonged suffering of the civilian population," Ladsous said.
Despite the "volatile security environment," Ladsous said a referendum is scheduled to take place from April 11-13 on whether Darfur should become a single region or retain the current division into five sub-regions. He cited a controversy over the criteria for voter eligibility and concerns about what some call "the unsuitable timing."
Sudan's U.N. Ambassador Omar Dahab Fadl reiterated the government's call for "an exit strategy" for UNAMID and called Elnur's forces "criminals." He said the government has documented evidence that the rebel leader and his movement have threatened to kill citizens in Jebel Marra if they refuse "to pay the ransom imposed on them under duress."
The panel of experts said it "is certain" that another rebel group — the Abbaka Rezeigat Militiamen of North Darfur — control the Jebel Amir artisanal gold mines, one of the largest sites in Darfur. It said it is "almost certain" that at least 400 mines are being exploited by the rebel group.
The panel said it is also certain that a substantial part of the gold taken from the mines is collected in Darfur and flown to Sudan's capital Khartoum for illegal export to the United Arab Emirates.
The experts said they are "almost certain" the Abbaka rebels have the potential to earn $54 million annually from levies on prospectors and businesses, direct mining of gold and its illegal export. They said they are certain that "an entity" controlled by janjaweed leader Musa Hilal gets "a substantial revenue stream from illicit levies on gold mining in Jebel Amir."
"The panel is almost certain that other armed groups, who impose illegal levies on prospectors, also control most artisanal mines of Darfur," the report said.
An analysis of trade data by the panel found that around 48,000 kilograms (105,821 pounds) of Darfur gold was potentially smuggled from Sudan to UAE from 2010 to 2014. It said this equates to an additional income of $123 million to armed groups in Darfur.
In other sanctions violations, the panel said it found small arms in Darfur manufactured after 2005, which violate a U.N. arms embargo. They also obtained evidence clearly showing that the Sudanese Air Force possesses cluster munitions, and that government forces in Darfur possess Typhoon armored personnel carriers, also in violation of the arms embargo, the report said.