The U.N. said in a report Thursday that Sudan is denying it full access to tens of thousands of civilians near an area between north and south Sudan where violence continues less than 10 days before Southern Sudan becomes the world's newest nation.
The Nuba people _ black Africans who have opposed the rule of Sudan's Arab north _ have streamed into the Nuba Mountains in search of safety from attacks by Sudan's military in Southern Kordofan, a part of Sudan's north. At least 73,000 have fled.
An internal U.N. report has said that dozens have been killed by aerial bombardments and gunfire attacks amid reports of door-to-door searches for black Nuba tribesman by the northern military. Because the U.N. and other aid groups cannot access the area, there are no firm numbers.
Attacks on the Nuba began on June 5 and included the bombing of a U.N. airstrip in Kauda _ a large town and Nuba stronghold _ preventing aid workers and U.N. personnel from flying in. The Nuba people generally support Southern Sudan and have fought alongside its military against the north during a decades-long civil war that ended in 2005.
A U.N. Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs report issued Thursday said that it received reports of aerial attacks from June 25-27 that weren't verified but were supported by photographic evidence and eyewitness reports.
The U.N. report says that the Sudanese government has granted humanitarian access to limited areas of Kadugli where aid groups have offices, but that "access to all other locations continues to be denied."
The International Rescue Committee said Thursday that international aid agencies also can't access Southern Kordofan. Nearly all international staff working for aid groups and the U.N. peacekeeping mission have been evacuated.
"We're extremely worried about the safety and well-being of people who live there. We're hearing stories of horrible atrocities," said Susan Purdin who oversees International Rescue Committee programs in Southern Sudan. "There have been numerous reports of targeted ethnic and political killings, the burning and looting of homes and businesses and intense aerial bombardments by the northern military."
Also on Thursday, a U.S.-based group that monitors violence in Sudan said it has visual evidence to corroborate reports that Sudan has bombed 10 towns and villages in the Nuba Mountains. The Satellite Sentinel Project said its satellite imagery captured four airplanes and five helicopters at Sudan's El Obeid air base. The group said the planes support allegations that Antonov and ground strike fighters are bombing targets in South Kordofan.
"The government of Sudan's bombardment of its own civilian population in the Nuba Mountains is in common with its previous ethnic cleansing campaigns in Darfur and in the disputed border region of Abyei," said John C. Bradshaw of the Enough Project.
The Nuba people _ who practice Islam, Christianity and animism _ have been targeted by Khartoum before. A northern military campaign in the 1990s killed as many as 200,000 Nubans. Many experts deemed the attacks a genocide.
Some Sudan experts are using the same words to describe the recent violence.
"The Sudanese Army and militias are systematically hunting down and murdering all Nuba who could fight back, that is who previously have experience fighting with the (southern army)," said Gregory Stanton, professor of genocide studies and prevention at George Mason University and the president of the U.S.-based group Genocide Watch.
"They are also murdering, raping, and pillaging all over the Nuba mountains. This is already genocide," said Stanton.
A spokesman for the north said military forces are not targeting civilians.
Samuel Totten, a genocide scholar at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, said the violence in the Nuba Mountains "could very well be genocide" but that evidence to substantiate such a declaration does not exist. He said that now is not the time to debate whether genocide is taking place, but to halt the atrocities, protect civilians and arrest those in charge who ordered the killings.
The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide says that genocide happens when acts are committed with the intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.
"Clearly you have ethnic cleansing going on, and if this is not genocide, this is clearly the road to genocide and will lead to genocide under anyone's definition unless strong action occurs," said Thomas Andrews of the Washington-based Genocide Intervention Network.
Internal U.N. security reports obtained by The Associated Press since the violence began June 5 show that Sudanese staff, particularly those from the Nuba ethnic group, working for U.N. agencies have been attacked, and some shot or disappeared, in their attempts to flee the state.
A U.N. report dated Wednesday said that two U.N. staff members are being held by Sudanese officials in Kadugli. Three staff members previously held have been released.
In a related development on Tuesday, the northern government and representatives of the southern-aligned opposition forces they are fighting in Southern Kordofan signed an agreement aimed at restoring peace in Southern Kordofan and neighboring Blue Nile. Support is strong for the south's ruling party and the southern army in these two northern states.
A spokesman for Sudan's ruling National Congress Party said Khartoum is working to achieve peace in Southern Kordofan.
"It is not correct that our forces are targeting civilians in the area, on the contrary the government is trying to establish security," said Rabie A. Atti. "No killing. No looting."
Atti said that Abdel Aziz Al-Hilu, who lost elections held in the state last month is leading an "illegal" political party due to the group's alliance with the south's ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement.
"They are now working against the legal government," he added.
The deal brokered Tuesday by the African Union's panel on Sudan is not a ceasefire, but calls on southern-aligned forces active in the two northern states to be integrated into the northern army.
Although the agreement specifically notes that force will not be used to disarm any opposition fighters, a Sudan expert said he doubted men from the Nuba Mountains would relinquish their weapons without a fight.
"Considering the current context, there is little reason to believe they will trust the commitments that were made the other day," Matthew LeRiche, a fellow at the London School of Economic who studies conflict in Sudan. "Disarmament inevitably leads to a fight."
Straziuso contributed from Nairobi, Kenya.