Sudan Fired on Civilians Unlawfully, Report Says

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 24, 2009

NEW YORK, Jan. 23 -- Sudanese intelligence and security forces unlawfully fired into a crowd of thousands of displaced Darfurians in August, killing 33 civilians and injuring 108 others, according to a U.N. inquiry released yesterday by the Geneva-based High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The United Nations previously condemned Sudan's action in the August incident, but this was the first release of findings from the official inquiry and offered further evidence of the worsening plight of the civilian population in the Darfur region, where more than 3 million people have been driven from their homes since violence erupted there five years ago.

When he was campaigning, President Obama pledged to take a tougher position than the Bush administration's to Sudanese excesses in Darfur. A State Department official declined to comment on the findings, saying the report should speak for itself.

More than 1,000 Sudanese forces tried to enter the Kalma camp on Aug. 25 to search for weapons, drugs or any other evidence of organized crime, the report said. They were met by thousands of civilians, some holding spears, knives and sticks.

"Witness testimonies confirmed that security forces shot arbitrarily at a large crowd of IDPs [internally displaced persons], including women and children," according to the report, which was based on the findings of U.N. and African U.N. peacekeepers. The report concluded that "the security forces used lethal force in an unnecessary, disproportionate and therefore unlawful manner."

Most of the victims were women and children, including 10 women and nine children who died instantly from gunshot wounds. A 75-year-old woman drowned when she fell into a pool of water while fleeing.

Sudanese authorities defended the decision to fire, saying that combatants from three rebel forces used the camp as a base for military operations. They said their troops fired warning shots and then opened fire only in self-defense, after snipers fired at them from trees inside the camp. Local authorities insisted that they "fired toward snipers positioned away from the crowd."

"Our forces were attacked fiercely," said Sudan's U.N. ambassador, Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem Mohamad. "That camp was used by the rebels as a storage for their armament and a launching pad" for attacks in the area.

The U.N. investigation found no evidence to support the government's claim that it had been attacked, but said that there was "credible evidence" that the camp had been used to store weapons.

The violence in Darfur began in February 2003, when rebel groups took up arms against Sudan's Islamic government, citing its repression of Darfur's black tribal groups. An international prosecutor accused Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of responding with a campaign that has led to more than 300,000 deaths.

Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said last week in her confirmation hearing that Obama and others in his administration "feel passionately that we can and we must do more to end the genocide in Darfur." She said she will first press the United Nations to accelerate its deployment of peacekeeping forces, which are at half strength.

Rice said the United States is also weighing more "robust action," including economic sanctions and measures to prevent Sudan's aerial bombardment of civilians. "We need to put adequate collective pressure on the government of Sudan to stop killing civilians," she said.

Relations between the government and more than 80,000 civilians at Kalma have been tense since the camp was established in February 2004. Government forces and allied militia have carried out serious abuses against civilians at Kalma, including rape, assault, arbitrary arrests and other acts of violence.

But the murky role of Darfur's rebels at the Kalma camp highlighted the difficulty in making an iron-clad case against Sudan at the United Nations, where China has vigorously opposed sanctions against Sudan.

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