By Evelyn Leopold
UNITED NATIONS, July 20 (Reuters) - Violence in Sudan's Darfur region has diminished greatly over the past year, partly because militia have run out of targets after razing countless villages, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said.
His report to the U.N. Security Council, obtained by Reuters on Wednesday, said active combat had been replaced by intimidation and fear, perpetuated by an ever-present militia when homeless people leave refugee camps.
"The decrease in attacks on civilians may also be a function of a reduced number of targets," Annan said. "So many villages have been destroyed since the war began that there are now fewer locations for militia to strike."
At least 180,000 people in Darfur have died from violence, hunger and disease and 2 million have been driven out of their homes, most into squalid camps or neighboring Chad.
The Darfur conflict, in Sudan's west, broke out in early 2003 after rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated government, complaining of discrimination.
Khartoum is accused by the United Nations and humanitarian groups of retaliating by arming local Arab militia, known as Janjaweed, who pillaged, killed and raped. It has denied the charge.
The U.N. report said that in some areas of Darfur, police were guarding the perimeter of the camps and escorting women and girls when they leave to collect firewood. But it said police were still indifferent to criminal complaints and some had recruited Janjaweed into their ranks.
Annan urged Khartoum to disarm the Janjaweed and other armed groups but said government officials made it known that that would begin only after a political settlement is reached.
100 DEATHS A MONTH
Annan's observations in the 16-page report are similar to ones made on Wednesday by Andrew Natsios, the top U.S. aid official, who said the drop in casualties was largely because most villages had already been razed.
On a visit to Sudan with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Natsios said he also suspected the Sudanese government still supported militia in Darfur despite the recent installment of a new government with former southern rebels.
The U.N. report, prepared by Jan Pronk, Annan's special envoy in Sudan, said the number of confirmed deaths due to violence had not exceeded 100 a month since January when the figure was 300 to 350 people.
A reduction in deaths over the past year was attributed to monitoring by an African Union force as well as actions by the Sudanese government.
Despite some successful talks among rebels and the government, led by Nigeria, divisions during negotiations led to clashes on the ground among rebel groups.
While their actions on the ground had have less impact on civilians than those government forces of the Janjaweed, they have frequently hindered relief as well as patrols by the Africa Union, the report said.
In Khartoum, the new Government of National Unity presented a new opportunity to engage parties at the negotiating table and move the political process forward.
But Annan said that international political pressure on all parties to enter serious and sustained talked was uncoordinated and often ineffective.
He also said gains made by humanitarian groups remained precarious in the absence of a political agreement to end the fighting. He feared international assistance would taper off if the violence continued with no end in sight.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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