Several recent articles reported incorrectly that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Sudan in more than 25 years. Vice President George H.W. Bush made a three-day trip to Sudan in March 1985. (Published 7/9/04)

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, warning that thousands of people are condemned to die in the strife-torn Darfur region even with an immediate influx of aid, met Tuesday night with Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan Bashir, Sudan's president, to deliver the blunt message that the situation has become intolerable.

Powell, who is scheduled to visit the western region of Darfur on Wednesday to draw attention to the crisis, said he urged the Sudanese government to halt its sponsorship of marauding Arab militias that have killed thousands of black Africans and made more than a million people homeless.

Powell said he asked that the government -- which has repeatedly denied there is mass suffering in Darfur -- also begin political negotiations with rebel groups in the region and give humanitarian groups full access to the area.

Powell, the highest-level U.S. official to visit Sudan in more than 25 years, emerged from the meetings with Bashir and other senior Sudanese leaders to report that he received a "very clear statement" from Bashir that he would "remove any bureaucratic impediment" that is blocking delivery of aid.

Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail, standing next to Powell, insisted that there was "no famine . . . no epidemic of diseases." But he acknowledged that "we still have to do more" because of the onset of the rainy season in Darfur. Sudanese officials have contended that foreign news media are exaggerating conditions in the region.

Powell came armed with satellite photos showing whole villages wiped out, and with statistics demonstrating that most camps that are housing more than 10,000 civilians lack sufficient food and water for nutrition.

At the news conference, he adopted a more diplomatic tone than he did in speaking with reporters traveling with him.

"Time is of the essence, and action is of the essence," Powell told the reporters. "They have to act now because we are running out of time. Some of these people have been condemned to death already. They will die in August and September, and there is nothing we can do to stop that. So we have got to act now, not later."

U.S. officials have said the Bush administration would use punitive sanctions, such as a ban on travel to the United States or a freeze on assets in the United States, against leaders of the Arab militias, and possibly Sudanese officials, found to have been complicit in the attacks. Powell said that after meeting with victims, he would consult with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan -- who will also be in Sudan this week -- about the text of a U.S.-sponsored U.N. Security Council resolution that would sharply criticize Sudan's government for failing to halt the violence.

Annan has suggested that international peacekeepers might be an option in Darfur, but Powell said that the idea was "very problematic," citing the size of the region and difficulties in operating there. A better solution, he said, would be for the Sudanese government to rein in the militias.

Powell also warned that U.S.-Sudan ties, which have been improving, would be affected by the government's actions. The Bush administration has worked to resolve a 21-year civil war between the Muslim north and the animist and Christian south -- an important issue for President Bush's Christian right supporters -- and a final peace deal has appeared near.

Last month, Sudan's government and the southern-based rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army signed landmark revenue- and power-sharing pacts in Naivasha, Kenya. The move was seen as a first step toward signing a comprehensive peace accord.

"Unless we resolve the Darfur situation and do it correctly, all of that is put at risk," Powell said to the reporters.

Powell said U.S. officials were studying whether to officially designate what has taken place in the Darfur region as genocide, but he added: "What we are seeing is a disaster, a catastrophe, and we can find the right label for it later. We have to deal it with it now."

Since Powell's trip was announced, there have been reports that the government has warned displaced civilians about what to say to the secretary when he arrives. The government also announced this week that 3,000 civilians voluntarily left the camp that Powell plans to visit.

Powell told reporters traveling with him that he was not conducting an investigation but that he had "been to places like this before and I know what can be arranged. . . . I can sort out when people are constrained from speaking."

Powell dismissed suggestions that the administration has been slow to react to the humanitarian crisis, saying it had been heavily engaged in international efforts to halt the government's support of the militias. The U.S. government has provided $116 million in aid, including food, water and shelter, and has pledged another $165 million through the end of next year, according to U.S. officials.

Powell said he was traveling here -- in a 24-hour visit squeezed between a NATO summit in Turkey and a security conference in Indonesia -- to draw the world's attention to the problem.