By Andrew Cawthorne Sat Dec 17, 6:29 AM ET
NAIROBI (Reuters) - The United Nations repatriated scores of southern Sudanese refugees from neighboring Kenya on Saturday at the start of a program offering hundreds of thousands of war exiles the chance to go home.
With a peace deal enabling the five million Sudanese displaced abroad or internally to consider going back, U.N. officials say the voluntary returns could turn into one of the biggest refugee operations the world has seen.
A first group of 147 refugees from Kakuma camp in north-western Kenya were being taken by air and road to three destinations in the southern Sudanese states of Jongley and Eastern Equatoria from Saturday morning, U.N. officials said.
Some 71,000 Sudanese refugees live at Kakuma.
"We plan to give returnees basic household goods to help them survive at home, as well as two weeks' worth of food to last until the U.N.'s World Food program is able to distribute a larger supply to the returnees in January," the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a statement.
Conflicts in the west, east and south of Africa's largest nation over the last two decades sent some 700,000 refugees fleeing to neighboring countries and displaced another four million Sudanese internally.
But with a January peace deal at least solving the largest and longest-running of those conflicts in the south, UNHCR says the time is right for refugees to start returning.
MANY ALREADY HOME, DANGERS LURK
About a quarter of a million Sudanese have already gone back under their own steam. But they are finding it tough to revive their communities in a vast region impoverished by conflict and chronically underdeveloped.
"Some refugees have gone home on their own without waiting for our assistance, but many are taking a more cautious approach," UNHCR said. "The long-neglected area either never had sufficient services, or saw its elementary infrastructure destroyed by decades of war."
Although the devastating two-decade north-south conflict is over, some militia still roam and Ugandan Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels hiding in southern Sudan launch sporadic attacks. That means some areas are still off-limits for repatriation.
The U.N. World Food program (WFP) hailed Saturday's return as the start of potentially "one of the most important refugee returns in history." WFP Kenya Country Director Tesema Negash said it was a long-term project the world must not forget about.
"This first group is a hope for the future for all Sudanese refugees and internally displaced people," he said.
"But the problems caused by 21 years of civil war are not going to disappear overnight. Bringing all the Sudanese home will take a long time and needs the international community's support."
More than 2m people have been driven from their homes
The prime minister called on Sudanese leaders to stop military action in the area and said he did not understand why they had rejected plans for a UN force.
As many as 200,000 people are thought to have died in three years of fighting and Mr Blair urged the world not to "just watch as this tragedy deepens".
An international day of events for Darfur is planned for Sunday.
Celebrities and religious leaders have called on the UK to take action.
Sudan's government is standing
in the face of united world opinion
International Development Secretary
In 2003, ethnic violence erupted between pro-government Arab militia and black Africans - who make up the majority of the region's population.
Since then, thousands of people have died and as many as two million have been displaced.
African Union (AU) soldiers have been policing the conflict, but they are due to leave at the end of September.
The UN intended to send a 20,000-strong peacekeeping force to replace the AU soldiers, but the Khartoum government has refused to accept the plan.
Mr Blair said he had thought the signing of the Darfur Peace Agreement in May by the government and one of the rebel groups would "set Darfur on the road to peace".
"The non-signatory rebel groups must now accept [the agreement] and the government of Sudan must stop its military campaign," he said.
"I do not understand the government of Sudan's rejection of the UN force, or its threat to withdraw its welcome from the AU."
Mr Blair pledged that Darfur would stay at the top of his agenda, adding he had already discussed the issue with US President George Bush and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.
"I will talk to other leaders to agree an initiative that sets out the help Sudan can expect if the government lives up to its obligations, and what will happen if they don't."
International Development Secretary Hilary Benn said Sudan's leaders were "standing in the face of united world opinion".
"Above all, they're not doing the right thing by the people they seek to represent," he said.
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell described the situation as the "true test of the resolution" of the international community.
"At long last the world is beginning to sit up and realise the enormity of what is taking place in Darfur," he said.
An open letter to Mr Blair signed by prominent figures including former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey urged the government to "move Darfur to the top of its priority list".
Campaigner Bob Geldof, pop stars Annie Lennox and Elton John, and Body Shop founder Anita Roddick were among the celebrities who signed the letter.
Meanwhile, Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders will gather outside Downing Street on Sunday to call for an end to the crisis as part of the International Day for Darfur.
HAVE YOUR SAY
We can't just leave the
Sudanese government to sort the problem
Shadrach, Nakaru, Kenya
The Catholic Bishop of El Obeid, whose diocese includes Darfur, has also sent a message.
Events are planned in 30 capital cities around the world as part of the international day.
On Thursday, Oscar-winner George Clooney told the UN Security Council members that genocide was taking place "on their watch".
"It is the first genocide of the 21st Century and if it continues unchecked, it will not be the last," he said.
Blair's spokesman quoted the prime minister as saying during a visit to Washington last week that the option of a no-fly zone in Darfur should be considered as part of possible sanctions against Sudan's government if it did not agree to a U.N. peace plan.
"If, in the next weeks and next couple of months or so the Sudanese government are not prepared to agree to the U.N. plan, then we've got to move to sanctions and we've got to move to tougher action," he quoted Blair as saying.
"I think we should certainly consider the option of a no-fly zone to help people in Darfur, because it's a very, very serious situation and it's now spilling into other countries next door."
The United States is also growing increasingly frustrated with Sudan's refusal to accept an international force in Darfur and U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said while diplomacy was the focus, other options were being explored.
"The (U.S.) president's going to consider what options he thinks are necessary in order to address the grave situation there," McCormack told reporters.
Another U.S. State Department official said while a no-fly zone was an option, the focus would likely be on economic sanctions, travel bans on Sudanese officials and other measures.
"There are a lot of ideas floating around out there," said the official, who asked not to be named.
A government source also said a no-fly zone was one of several potential sanctions being considered. Others included asset freezes and travel bans.
But any sanctions would have to be approved by the U.N. Security Council. China may be reluctant to support such action, given its business interests in Sudan, which sells it large amounts of oil. Beijing has resisted calls to authorise U.N. peacekeepers in Darfur without Bashir's approval.
The Security Council in August approved deployment of as many as 22,000 peacekeepers to Darfur, where more than 200,000 people have been killed and more than 2.5 million driven from their homes in a conflict that has raged since 2003.
But Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has ignored intense international pressure to let in U.N. troops, saying it would be akin to a Western recolonisation of his country.
The U.S. and others offered Sudan a compromise "hybrid" U.N./African Union force, which Khartoum continued to resist.
Washington's special envoy to Sudan, Andrew Natsios, has set a January 1 deadline for Khartoum to make progress on Darfur or have the United States and others resort to what he called "Plan B."
Natsios is scheduled to visit Britain next week following his latest round of diplomatic efforts in Khartoum and is expected to hold talks with International Development Secretary Hilary Benn.
While Washington is weighing its options, the prospect of military intervention in Darfur seems unlikely, particularly with the United States bogged down in Iraq.
Pentagon press secretary Eric Ruff said he was not aware of planning for any military operations involving Darfur. But as a policy, he added, the Pentagon would not discuss planning.
"Our military is constantly planning and reviewing options and things, we just don't discuss it," he said.
(Additional reporting by Sue Pleming and Andrew Grey in Washington)
denial and refusal, the Sudanese
Government accepts UN intervention is essential.
A Sudanese government spokesman told the BBC the expansion agreement showed his country's commitment to peace.
He said the size of any force remained to be settled.
More than 300,000 people, mostly civilians, have died in conflict in the troubled western region in the past three years.
There are also fears that the fighting is destabilising Chad, home to hundreds of thousands of refugees, where there has been an upsurge in violence.
Under a three-phase plan, the existing peacekeeping force of 7,000 African Union (AU) soldiers would be augmented by dozens of UN experts and then expanded into a hybrid force, with UN troops providing logistical and other support.
Sudan's change of heart on its previous opposition to UN participation follows international threats of trade sanctions and of a ban on aircraft movements over Darfur, to stop bombing raids by government forces.
However, the UN says it is still waiting for written confirmation from Sudan that its troops will be included in the peacekeeping force.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has until now strongly opposed any involvement of the UN in the western region.
More than two million people are living in camps after fleeing almost four years of fighting in the region and they would be even more vulnerable without any peacekeepers.
Sudan's government and the pro-government Arab militias are accused of war crimes against the region's black African population, although the UN has stopped short of calling it genocide.
How did the conflict start?
The conflict began in the arid and impoverished region early in 2003 after a rebel group began attacking government targets, saying the region was being neglected by Khartoum.
The rebels say the government is oppressing black Africans in favour of Arabs.
Darfur, which means land of the Fur, has faced many years of tension over land and grazing rights between the mostly nomadic Arabs, and farmers from the Fur, Massaleet and Zagawa communities.
There are two main rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (Jem), although the peace talks were complicated by splits in both groups, some along ethnic lines.
The groups opposed to a May peace deal with the government have now merged into the National Redemption Front led by former Darfur governor Ahmed Diraige.
What is the government doing?
It admits mobilising "self-defence militias" following rebel attacks but denies any links to the Janjaweed, accused of trying to "cleanse" black Africans from large swathes of territory.
Refugees from Darfur say that following air raids by government aircraft, the Janjaweed ride into villages on horses and camels, slaughtering men, raping women and stealing whatever they can find.
Human rights groups, the US Congress and the former US Secretary of State Colin Powell all said that genocide was taking place - though a UN investigation team sent to Sudan said that while war crimes had been committed, there had been no intent to commit genocide.
Sudan's government denies being in control of the Janjaweed and President Omar al-Bashir has called them "thieves and gangsters".
After strong international pressure and the threat of sanctions, the government promised to disarm the Janjaweed. But so far there is little evidence this has happened.
Trials have been announced in Khartoum of some members of the security forces suspected of abuses - but this is viewed as part of a campaign against UN-backed attempts to get some 50 key suspects tried at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
What has happened to the civilians?
Millions have fled their destroyed villages, with many heading for camps near Darfur's main towns. But there is not enough food, water or medicine.
The Janjaweed patrol outside the camps and Darfurians say the men are killed and the women raped if they venture too far in search of firewood or water.
The refugees are also threatened by the diplomatic fallout between Chad and Sudan as the neighbours accuse one another of supporting each other's rebel groups.
Chad's eastern areas have a similar ethnic make-up to Darfur.
Many aid agencies are working in Darfur but they are unable to get access to vast areas because of the fighting.
How many have died?
With much of Darfur inaccessible to aid workers and researchers, calculating how many deaths there have been in the past three years is impossible.
What researchers have done is to estimate the deaths based on surveys in areas they can reach.
The latest research published in September 2006 in the journal Science puts the numbers of deaths above and beyond those that would normally die in this inhospitable area at "no fewer than 200,000".
The US researchers say that their figures are the most compelling and persuasive estimate to date. They have made no distinction between those dying as a result of violence and those dying as a result of starvation or disease in refugee camps.
Accurate figures are crucial in determining whether the deaths in Darfur are genocide or - as the Sudanese government says - the situation is being exaggerated.
What happened to the peace deal?
SLA leader Minni Minawi, who signed the May peace deal, was given a large budget, but his fighters have already been accused by Amnesty International of abuses against people in areas opposed to the peace deal.
The smaller SLA faction and Jem did not sign the deal.
The government again promised to disarm the Janjaweed but there appears no evidence of this.
The UN's Jan Egeland says that there has been a dramatic increase in violence and displacement since the deal was signed.
With the peace deal looking unworkable and amid fears of renewed "all-out war", there appears little prospect of people returning to their villages for some time yet.
Is anyone trying to stop the fighting?
About 7,000 African Union troops have slowly been deployed in Darfur on a very limited mandate.
Experts say the soldiers are too few to cover an area the size of France, and the African Union says it does not have the money to fund the operation for much longer.
Sudan has resisted strong western diplomatic pressure for the UN to take control of the peacekeeping mission. The latest plan envisages a more than doubling of numbers and a hybrid force with much greater UN involvement but at present there is deadlock.
In April 2006, the UN Security Council passed a resolution imposing sanctions against four Sudanese nationals accused of war crimes in Darfur that include two rebel leaders, a former air force chief, and a Janjaweed militia leader.
A dossier of evidence compiled by a UN commission has also been passed to the ICC in The Hague, along with the names of top war crimes suspects.