With the debris of a burned village crunching underfoot and African Union soldiers on guard, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick toured a hauntingly empty stretch of Sudan's war-torn Darfur region Thursday, seeing firsthand the violent devastation that continues here nearly three years after conflict broke out.
But the visit degenerated into an angry confrontation when a Sudanese official tried to prevent Zoellick from speaking with African Union monitors, shouting in his face repeatedly. Zoellick held his ground, while startled monitors moved closer, momentarily concerned that a fight might break out.
The incident was reminiscent of a July meeting in Khartoum, the capital, between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Sudan's president, Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan Bashir. Sudanese secret police roughed up several aides to Rice, including her translator, as well as foreign journalists trying to cover the meeting.
Rice demanded an apology, and senior Sudanese officials eventually complied.
On Thursday, Zoellick, who is on a five-day trip partly aimed at promoting a political solution to the conflict between the government and Darfur rebels, first listened to tribal leaders and the regional government commissioner, Sadiek Abdel Nabi, describe recent attacks by anti-government rebels from the Sudan Liberation Movement.
Zoellick then stepped away for a separate briefing by African Union officials, who told him the government's counterattack had included aerial bombings in this area, coordinated with allied militiamen on horseback.
Nabi followed, trying to listen in, but Zoellick reprimanded him.
"I want to hear a straight story," Zoellick said. "I don't trust your government."
But the commissioner pressed in, close to Zoellick's face.
"No," he shouted several times, waving his arms.
At that, Zoellick demanded, "Do you want me to call el-Bashir?" Then he turned away and began trudging toward a burned hut. Nabi ran after him until they stood nose to nose.
"I am el-Bashir here!" he shouted three times.
Zoellick's aides looked both amused and nervous, and several African Union monitors quickly stepped close in case the confrontation escalated.
Zoellick finished the tour but expressed his annoyance as he boarded a helicopter to visit Kalma Camp, where 90,000 displaced residents live in huts made of debris and sticks.
"He didn't have to act that way," Zoellick said, adding that the destruction at Shek en Nil showed that both an attack and a counterattack had occurred.
Zoellick, on his fourth trip to Sudan in six months, has pressed Darfur's fractious rebel groups to unite and stop the violence or risk losing international goodwill.
On Wednesday, he met with Bashir and other Sudanese officials, prodding them to fulfill a separate peace pact between the north and south that ended a long civil war in January. Progress in implementing the pact has slowed since the death of the southern rebel leader, John Garang, in July.
Zoellick also gave a speech at the University of Khartoum, warning that "when one piece of the mosaic cracks, there is a danger that everything else could fall apart." Those who suffer most, he said, are "the poor, the displaced and the dispossessed. They are the soul of Sudan, and they have already suffered far, far too much."
On Thursday, Zoellick visited the southern Darfur headquarters of the African Union, which has asked for more money and logistical support to enforce the peace. Last month, two Nigerian officers were killed in a firefight when they ran out of ammunition.
The African Union officials asked Zoellick to press Congress to restore $50 million in promised aid that was cut. He said the U.S. government could probably "move around accounts" to continue its financial support.
"We are like sitting ducks," Mutale Kasoma, an army captain from Zambia, said in an interview. "We hope Zoellick, who is a big, high-up man, helps us."
Afterward, Zoellick visited a U.S.-sponsored center where women weave baskets to earn money. Many women in Darfur have been sexually assaulted, especially when they gather firewood outside their camps. The center was started, in part, as a idea of Zoellick's to help make them less vulnerable.