UNITED NATIONS -- The conflict in Darfur is deteriorating, with full deployment of a new peacekeeping force delayed until 2009 and no prospect of a political settlement for a war that has killed perhaps 300,000 people in five years, U.N. officials said Tuesday.
In grim reports to the Security Council, the United Nations aid chief and the representative of the peacekeeping mission said suffering in the Sudanese region is worsening. Tens of thousands more have been uprooted from their homes and food rations to the needy are about to be cut in half, they said.
"We continue to see the goal posts receding, to the point where peace in Darfur seems further away today than ever," said John Holmes, undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs.
The conflict began in early 2003 when ethnic African rebels took up arms against Sudan's Arab-dominated central government, accusing it of discrimination. Many of the worst atrocities in the war have been blamed on the janjaweed militia of Arab nomads allied with the government.
A joint U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force took over duties in Darfur in January from a beleaguered 7,000-man AU mission. But only about 9,000 soldiers and police officers of the authorized 26,000 have deployed.
"We are late and we are trying to speed up the deployment of this mission, and we facing many obstacles," said the U.N.-AU force's envoy, Rodolphe Adada. "But eventually, with the help of some donors, we could be in a position to achieve maybe 80 percent of the force by the end of this year."
The mission faces major problems in putting troops into a very hostile environment, Adada said. It still lacks five critical capabilities to become operational - attack helicopters, surveillance aircraft, transport helicopters, military engineers and logistical support.
Holmes said further progress in deploying the joint peacekeeping force, known as UNAMID, would help protect civilians and possibly humanitarian convoys.
"But only an end to all violence and concrete steps towards a political settlement will make the fundamental difference needed, as the rebel movements themselves above all need to recognize," Holmes said. "Otherwise the reality is that the people of Darfur face a continued steady deterioration of their conditions of life and their chances of lasting recovery."
The U.N. and AU have tried for months to open new peace talks between Sudan and rebel groups following the failure of a 2005 agreement to stem violence. But most rebel chiefs are boycotting the negotiations, and security in Darfur has further deteriorated in recent months.
Adada told the council that "unfortunately, it is commonly understood today in Darfur that peace is not at all attractive - neither economically nor politically."
Darfur's main rebel chief said Tuesday he told Security Council representatives last month that no peace talks can be held until security is restored.
"Wrong negotiations will only complicate the matter and prolong the suffering of the people of Darfur," Abdulwahid Elnur, head of the Sudan Liberation Movement, told The Associated Press during an interview in Paris, where he lives in exile.
When former U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland brought the Darfur conflict to the Security Council's attention in April 2004, he said approximately 750,000 people were in danger.
Today, Holmes told the council, "of Darfur's estimated 6 million people, some 4.27 million have now been seriously affected by the conflict."
He said nearly many of them have had to flee their homes - some 2.45 million people are sheltering elsewhere in Sudan and 260,000 more in neighboring countries. Some 100,000 civilians have been forced to flee just this year, Holmes said. Some 60,000 of them were displaced in West Darfur, which has seen an upsurge in violence.
"Those in the camps feel helpless and voiceless," Holmes said. "The fear of never being able to return to their areas of origin, and the pressure by government authorities to return when conditions are clearly not right, lead to increasing tension, polarization, politicization and even militarization."
The U.N. World Food Program announced last week that it will have to halve the amount of food provided to Darfur's needy next month because humanitarian convoys are being attacked. The cut "could not come at a worse time ... as the rainy season approaches," Holmes said.
Egeland, the former U.N. humanitarian chief, estimated in 2006 that 200,000 people had lost their lives because of the conflict, from violence, disease and malnutrition. He said this was based on an independent mortality survey released in March 2005 by the U.N. World Health Organization.
"That figure must be much higher now, perhaps half as much again," Holmes said Tuesday.
Sudanese Ambassador Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem Mohamed countered that "in our own calculations, the total number does not exceed 10,000."
He said his government counts only people killed in fighting, saying there are no dead from malnutrition and starvation "because in Darfur there is no epidemics, no starvations."
"The exaggerated number given is to serve political ends," Mohamed said. "It is only to give the impression that the government is not doing much in the peacekeeping to save its own people."
Queried by reporters, Holmes said the estimate of 300,000 dead "is not a very scientifically based figure" because there have been no new mortality studies in Darfur, but "it's a reasonable extrapolation."
"What I'm saying is if that figure of 200,000 was anything like right in 2006, then that figure must be much higher now," he said.
Egeland told AP last month that he estimated the toll had risen to around 400,000.
South African Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo, the current Security Council president, said he was especially concerned that "there's absolutely nothing (moving) on the political process."
Asked if the council consider sanctions against those obstructing peace efforts, Kumalo said: "Well, the people who are obstructing the peace process are sitting in the nice capitals of Europe, so what can we do? And Europe is represented in the council."
He was clearly referring to Elnur, the rebel chief living in Paris.
Sudan's ambassador said one message came through "loud and clear" from Tuesday's meeting.
"We should give priority again to the peace process, because even peacekeeping with the maximum number is not a substitute to the political process," Mohamed said.
Western officials have blamed Sudan's government for the delay in deploying peacekeepers and key military equipment. Sudan denies that, but it has vetoed troop contributions from some non-African or non-Muslim nations.
"Contributors have to come from the whole world. It's the only guarantee that the force works on the ground, with neutrality," Elnur told AP.
© 2008 Associated Press