Darfur villagers tell horrifying stories to UN

Villagers in western Darfur told U.N. staff they were beaten, abducted and sexually assaulted by armed men in military uniforms, a U.N. human rights official said Friday.

Jose Diaz, spokesman for U.N. human rights chief Louise Arbour, said the alleged abuses occurred earlier this month in Bir Dagig, near Sudan's border with Chad. They were committed by armed men in military uniforms riding on camels and horses, he said.

"A number of human rights abuses are said to have been committed," he told reporters at the U.N.'s European headquarters in Geneva. "The problem in the area appears to have been sparked by accusations from a neighboring Arab community that the villagers had stolen their livestock - a charge the residents of Bir Dagig deny."

U.N. staff have visited the village twice this month and collected accounts from villagers of abuses. There were no reports of deaths. During their second visit, on Wednesday, U.N. officials were forced to leave the village.

"They personally witnessed the arrival of armed men who surrounded the village center and demanded money in compensation for the alleged theft of the livestock," Diaz said.

An estimated 200,000 people have been killed and around 2.5 million displaced in the four-year conflict in Darfur that began when rebels from ethnic African tribes rose up against the central government. Khartoum is accused of having responded with indiscriminate killings by unleashing the janjaweed militias of Arab nomads - blamed for the worst atrocities in Darfur. The government denies these charges.

Diaz said the Sudanese government initially deployed extra police to the village, but withdrew them completely in April.

"There's no police presence in this village now," he said.

The government has promised the U.N. that it would investigate the dispute and the alleged rights abuses. It also has pledged to deploy a permanent police presence to Bir Dagig, but "these things have not been done so far and human rights abuses and intimidation persist," Diaz said.

Diaz said Arbour, the U.N. rights chief, is demanding that Sudan step up protection for the citizens of Darfur.

"We are concerned now about possible further violence given the presence of the armed men," he said.