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Debate grows over number of Darfur dead

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  • Debate grows over number of Darfur dead

    Debate grows over number of Darfur dead

    By ALFRED de MONTESQUIEU Associated Press Writer
    2006 The Associated Press

    KHARTOUM, Sudan As violence in Darfur escalates, a debate is growing over how many people have died in what officials call the world's worst humanitarian crisis. A U.N. agency's survey cites at least 200,000 deaths, but other studies say the death toll could be closer to 400,000 or more.
    Sudan's government, however, contends the deaths are only a tiny fraction of that.

    The dispute occurs in part because, ever since fighting began in early 2003, humanitarian workers have had only limited and perilous access to Darfur, a sprawling, arid region of western Sudan nearly the size of Texas.

    Both violence and government restrictions have kept aid groups and researchers away. Right now, for example, violence makes nearly 40 percent of the population inaccessible to aid workers, said Ramesh Rajasingham, the head of the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Sudan.

    "To this day, we don't really have our eyes on the ground. We work with projections," Rajasingham said in a recent interview.

    Overall, the U.N. says 4 million people in Darfur are currently in desperate need of aid _ nearly two-thirds of the estimated Darfur population of 6.5 million. An estimated 2.5 million live in refugee camps in Darfur and neighboring Chad, while others inhabit remote villages, the U.N. says.

    On deaths, the last official, independent mortality survey for Darfur was published in March 2005. Based on data collected in refugee camps in Darfur, a team from the World Health Organization estimated that 10,000 of these refugees died each month between the end of 2003 and October 2004 _ mostly of malnutrition and disease linked to the violence. By March 2005, when the survey was released, the total number had risen to 200,000 deaths, the WHO later estimated.

    The figures have not been thoroughly updated since. Yet fighting has worsened in the past few months.

    That has led some researchers and human rights advocates to contend that the estimate of 200,000 killed since 2003 is too low. They say the violence has continued at the same or greater level each month since March 2005, meaning total deaths now could be as high as 400,000.
    Government attacks in the last month alone have chased at least 60,000 from their homes, Rajasingham said, and dozens of villages have been razed. But aid agencies do not have time and resources to "go around counting the graves," he said, because they need to focus on survivors.

    "We are concerned with the numbers of the living more than the number of the dead," Rajasingham said. "Our priority is to prevent further killing."
    U.N. officials still usually use the 200,000 number. The Associated Press also uses the figure of at least 200,000 dead, based on the WHO survey.
    For its part, Sudan's government in Khartoum says death tolls have been vastly inflated.

    Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir said in September that only 10,000 people had died because of violence in Darfur since 2003. In a press conference this week, he lowered his figure to 9,000. "I challenge anybody to prove differently," al-Bashir said.

    Khartoum denies having orchestrated killings in Darfur, and recently described attacks by Arab nomads called janjaweed as being conducted by "renegade Arab bandits" it does not control.

    But academics who study the Darfur crisis put little stock in Khartoum's estimate.

    They say the exact extent of Darfur's killing cannot be proven because the survey done by the WHO ended in March 2005 and no other research has been permitted on the ground by the Sudanese government since then.
    David Nabarro, who directed the WHO survey, said that because of lack of freedom of movement and security concerns at the time, "we may not have been able to get the full extent of the violent mortality" _ or those killed in violence.

    "So the numbers are possibly higher," he said in a recent phone interview.
    Nabarro stressed that his survey also described only "what was happening in a defined time frame (from end of 2003 until early 2005) and within accessible areas" of Darfur.

    More than a dozen other studies have estimated death tolls ranging around 400,000 for the period since 2003.

    Those include a survey by the Washington-based and State Department-funded Center for International Justice, which conducted interviews with Darfur refugees in Chad in August 2004. That survey found 61 percent of those interviewed reported witnessing the killing of a family member.

    The survey combined that percentage with the number of refugees in Chad to reach a total of 200,000 dead in violent attacks. Because the WHO study did not survey refugees in Chad and did not count many violent deaths, the report argues the 200,000 that it estimated dead by violence among refugee families in Chad should be added to the WHO's toll of 200,000 dead inside Darfur camps to reach a total of 400,000 deaths.

    But not all researchers accept the methodology, calling the extrapolation method faulty.