October 21, 2005 7:05 PM
By Jeremy Lovell
LONDON (Reuters) - The world has just weeks to help restore peace in Sudan's Darfur region or risk watching it slide back into civil war with repercussions for the whole region, U.N. refugee chief Antonio Guterres said on Friday.
A patchy cease-fire was falling apart as the two main rebel groups began to disintegrate, an African Union (AU) peace force was hopelessly undermanned, under-equipped and under-funded and the world appeared to have lost interest, he said.
"Everything is getting out of control. This is happening on both sides," Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told Reuters. "The crucial moment is from now to the end of the year."
"We are close to a moment in which a new major tragedy might occur in Darfur," he added at the launch of a DVD of a concert last December to raise money for refugees from the strife-torn region the size of France.
"It would have a major impact on the neighbours ... and on the whole African region."
The United Nations says at least two million Sudanese have been turned into refugees in their own country by 2 1/2 years of fighting between rebels, the Sudanese army and Arab militias known as Janjaweed, believed to be backed by Khartoum.
Another 200,000 have been forced to flee to camps in neighbouring Chad.
Rape, murder and robbery are rampant, and food is scarce despite the efforts of aid agencies.
A sixth round of faltering peace talks in the Nigerian capital Abuja was adjourned until November on Thursday. Since mid-September scant headway has been made.
Security in Darfur has deteriorated in recent weeks, especially in the area bordering Chad, where militias have attacked refugee camps and AU personnel have been abducted by dissident rebels.
Guterres said that if Darfur, where banditry is rife and aid agencies are virtually unable to operate, collapsed into civil war again it could not only destabilise the whole of the vast country but the entire area.
"Even our staff there can barely move. There is no security," he said. "What we are witnessing on the ground is a very serious deterioration."
Yet the international community -- which had appeared to have focussed its attention on Darfur a year ago and persuaded all sides to talk -- had turned its eyes elsewhere.
He urged the United Nations, the European Union and other major international players like China to refocus their efforts to reinvigorate the peace talks and give the 6,000-strong AU force the ability to operate effectively.
"The engagement of the international community is absolutely crucial," he said. "Darfur became a forgotten crisis."
"The African Union force cannot effectively protect the people of Darfur ... and in some cases even themselves," he said, likening the task facing the fledgling force to placing one policeman in London and asking him to stop all crime there.