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Powell demands urgent Sudan action

Guerrilla Activities
Kofi Annan
United Nations

KHARTOUM, Sudan (CNN) -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has called for immediate action to secure Sudan's western Darfur region, where one million people have fled their homes as Arab militias battle black Africans.

"Time is of the essence and action is of the essence," he told reporters of a situation that has been described as the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

"They've got to act now because we are running out of time.

Powell has headed to the North African nation in a bid to see the worsening humanitarian crisis first-hand. He is set to visit some of the camps serving as temporary shelters for the displaced since the ethnic struggle began 16 months ago.

On Tuesday he urged Sudan's president to quickly resolve the conflict.

The Sudanese government has been accused of helping Arab militias carry out an ethnic cleansing campaign against black Africans in Darfur, a charge it denies.

Humanitarian groups estimate that 15,000 to 30,000 civilians have died in Darfur and more than a million have been displaced since fighting broke out in February 2003.

Arab militias have also razed villages, burned crops and destroyed water sources, U.S. officials have said.

While Sudanese officials have downplayed the situation in Darfur, Powell said his message was well received by Sudan's leadership, noting "they understand that security has to be number one."

According to Reuters, Powell told President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to end attacks by the militias, provide full access for humanitarian aid, restart political talks with rebel groups in Darfur and allow more international ceasefire monitors into the region.

"Every effort will be made to remove any bureaucratic impediments to the delivery of aid and the means to deliver aid," Powell said, noting that would be the focus of his discussions Wednesday.

Powell will meet with Darfur tribal and political leaders in the morning at some of the refugee camps, and later with United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in Khartoum.

Annan has described the situation as the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

Powell's visit to the country is the first by a U.S. secretary of state since 1978.

President George W. Bush is "deeply disturbed" by the humanitarian crisis in Sudan and calls upon all parties to "adhere to the ceasefire" and "end the crisis now," a White House statement said.

The conflict in Darfur began last year when rebels attacked government property, accusing the government of neglecting mostly black Darfur in favor of the country's Arab population.

The government responded by setting up Arab militias, known as Janjaweed, to put down the rebellion.

The Arab militias are accused of waging a campaign to expel black Africans from the vast and remote part of Sudan.

The warring factions recently agreed to a cease-fire, but violence between them has continued.

Black Africans make up 52 percent of Sudan's population, while Arabs make up 39 percent, according to the CIA.

CNN Correspondent Jeff Koinange and State Department Producer Elise Labott contributed to this report

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