- Ibrahim Hamid
NAIROBI, Nov 9 (AFP) — A Sudanese minister claimed that more than 270,000 people displaced by the conflict in Darfur had gone home "voluntarily" and that the situation in the western region was "improving."
A senior United Nations official cast doubt on these claims later Tuesday.
"More than 270,000 people have voluntarily returned to their homes. This is a very good sign and indicator that the situation in Darfur is improving," Humanitarian Minister Ibrahim Mahmoud Hamid told a news conference in Nairobi.
Hamid gave no time frame for the claimed 270,000 returns. Massive civilian displacement began in Darfur soon after fighting broke out in February 2003 between rebels and government forces and allied militia.
Tens of thousands of people have since died as a result and more than 1.5 million forced to flee their homes.
Hamid’s figures do not tally with those of the United Nations.
"The UN is aware of returns in the very low thousands," Manuel Aranda da Silva, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Sudan told AFP through an aide.
"We have received no information from the government about 270,000 returnees so are unable to say whether the figure is accurate," he added, noting that Khartoum had an obligation to respect mechanisms designed specifically to assess whether displaced civilians who return home do so of their own free will.
Several recent UN statements have noted a sharp deterioration of security in Darfur over the last couple of weeks and especially an increase in violent incidents involving civilians.
There have been numerous reports that those leaving camps for the displaced have done so under duress, especially in the case last week of several thousand civilians in and around the Darfur town of Nyala.
Hamid said these people had been moved from private land to government camps where there was "enough water, latrines and sanitation."
Last week, the Nyala relocations prompted a chorus of international condemnation, with the United States accusing Khartoum of violating UN principles concerning internally displaced people and UN security council resolutions on Darfur.
Also Tuesday, the UN’s World Food Programme said "insecurity spreading across Darfur" was to blame for a significant fall in the number of people it was able to feed there in October, 1.1 million, "down nearly 175,000 people from September."
On Sunday, the Spanish branch of Medecins Sans Frontieres said "repeated" acts of aggression had prompted its staff in the Jebel Marra area of Darfur to temporarily withdraw.
The Sudanese humanitarian minister welcomed the United Nations team that began work Monday investigating claims that a genocide was taking place in Darfur.
"We are not afraid of any investigations. There is no genocide in Darfur," he said.
"There is war and the rebels are responsible for the war and violating ceasefire," Hamid added.