Violence is getting worse in Darfur despite international peace efforts, and Sudan's central government can no longer resist the world's will to send in peace forces, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Friday.
"Time is running out," the top US diplomat told participants in an emergency international meeting on the three-year-old conflict in the African nation.
Rice called the meeting of about two dozen nations and international organizations on the sidelines of the United Nations opening session to push for a stronger international peace force despite objections from Sudan's government.
The U. Security Council passed a resolution last month that would expand the mission from 7,000 to more than 20,000 troops and give it new authority to protect civilians.
But Sudan's government vehemently opposes the introduction of UN forces in Darfur, where fighting between rebels and government-backed militias has killed more than 200,000 people and displaced 2.5 million since 2003. The UN has called it the world's worst humanitarian disaster, and the United States has labeled the attacks genocide.
"The violence in Darfur is not subsiding, it is getting worse," Rice told the gathering. "If the notion of our responsibility to protect the weakest and most powerless among us is ever to be more than an empty promise, then we must take action to save lives."
After the meeting, Rice hinted at stronger action if Sudan will not back down.
"There are other measures at the disposal of the international community should we not be able to get the agreement of Sudan," Rice told reporters.
A group of Darfur-born exiles called Rice's efforts a good first step, but it also criticized the United States and other world powers for doing too little too late to stop a daily tide of killings and rapes in Darfur's ravaged villages and teeming refugee camps.
"Our call today is to the entire world ... to extend their hands to save these people," said Yahya Osman. "What is happening in Darfur is a silent genocide."
Other refugees at a press conference in Rice's Manhattan hotel described the deaths of cousins, uncles and other relatives at the hands of Sudanese government forces or the mounted Arab militiamen known as Janjaweed that they support.
The conflict in the remote Darfur region began in 2003, when ethnic African tribes revolted against the Arab-led Khartoum government. Militias, sometimes backed by helicopter gunships, have leveled villages and burned fields.
US President George W. Bush repeated the charge of genocide in one of the most pointed portions of his address to world leaders at the United Nations earlier this week. He named a special US envoy to bring added pressure on the Khartoum government of President Omar al-Bashir.
The U.S. approach is hitting some resistance, especially from nations that argue that Sudan will respond best if it does not feel that its sovereignty or authority is being challenged.
Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa alluded to the difference of opinion in remarks to reporters Friday.
"I really want to contribute to the creation of ... a quiet atmosphere, a working atmosphere," Moussa said.
"We have suffered at certain stages of this problem of either exaggeration or misinformation," he added. "We have a major problem in Darfur, but not all what you hear, not all the information circulated, are really accurate."
Rice said no one is coddling Khartoum.
"No one intends to appease anyone," she told reporters. "We intend to have the government of Sudan act."
Al-Bashir denies there is a major humanitarian disaster in Darfur and said Tuesday that death rates there were no worse than anywhere else in Sudan. He said he would not allow U.N. peacekeepers into Darfur under any circumstances.
In a compromise reached this week, an African Union peacekeeping force will remain in Darfur through the end of the year. Human rights groups said the agreement didn't go nearly far enough to stop the suffering.
The African Union had hoped to turn over control for peacekeeping in Darfur to the United Nations when the mission's current mandate expires Sept. 30.
Chad's foreign minister, Ahmad Allam-mi, said in a speech Friday night at the U.N. that the Darfur crisis threatened not just the security of his country but that of the entire sub-region of Central Africa. He said Chad had suffered a lack of security, economic loss, environmental destruction and Janjaweed incursions.
"We can only welcome the extension until the end of December 2006 of the African Union mission in Darfur," he said. "It's better than nothing."
In urging the UN to take over from the African Union pursuant to the Security Council resolution, Allam-mi said such action "is simply dictated by common sense, in order to bring assistance to the innocent victims of the war. And also because more than anyone, we have every interest in restoring peace in Darfur, if only to enable the hundreds of thousands of Sudanese refugees located on our territory to return to their country and thereby put an end to the sacrifices to the Chadian hosts."