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War in Darfur over? Not quite

Rights groups say 3 million refugees remain threatened by violence.

Children displaced by the war in Darfur play on a tree near the town of Gos Beida in eastern Chad, May 18, 2009. (Emmanuel Braun/Reuters)

BOSTON — The war in Darfur is over? That’s what the outgoing general of the United Nations forces in that troubled African region says.

General Martin Agwai, who is leaving his post this week, said the vicious fighting over the past six years has subsided as the rebel groups have divided into insignificant factions. He says the Darfur region of Sudan now suffers more from low-level disputes and banditry, instead of war.

But many people are not buying that line. Especially the nearly 3 million refugees in Darfur. They remain huddled in their camps, terrified of attacks by government-sponsored militia, according to experts on the long-running conflict.

The U.N. says 300,000 people have died in Darfur, but the Sudanese government says the fatalities are much lower, at 10,000. About 7 million people live in Darfur, out of Sudan's total population of about 40 million.

The war broke out in the arid, impoverished Darfur region of western Sudan (see map below) in 2003 when rebel groups attacked government targets. They accused the the Arab-dominated Khartoum government of oppressing black Africans. Pro-government militias hit back with brutal force, killing thousands of civilians. The U.S. and many rights groups charge the government sponsored the violence and have called it genocide. The Khartoum government denies supporting the militias, but the international court in The Hague issued an arrest warrant earlier this year for President Omar al-Bashir, accusing him of war crimes.

Agwai, who led the joint U.N. and African Union peacekeeping force known as Unamid, said that Darfur now suffers more from isolated "security issues" than a full-blown conflict.

"Banditry, localised issues, people trying to resolve issues over water and land at a local level. But real war as such, I think we are over that," he said.

But several specialists on the Darfur conflict reject Agwai’s assertion that the war has been resolved.

“This is incredibly premature. To say the war in Darfur is over directly contradicts what we see on the ground,” said Colin Thomas-Jensen, policy adviser for Enough, the anti-genocide project at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

“There may be a lull in the violence, but you cannot say that it is over. There is no political settlement and no political process to resolve the conflict. Neither side is defeated and the government is building up its arms stockpile,” Thomas-Jensen told GlobalPost.