True extent of Sudan's agony revealed by NASA images

Key points

• Satellite images reveal tragedy in Sudan

• Destruction of villages shown

• 350,000 people could die in the next nine months

Key quote

"We’ve now analysed 576 villages, 300 of which are completely destroyed, 76 of which are substantially destroyed," - Andrew Natsios, Administrator of US Agency for International Development

Story in full THE true scale of the ethnic cleansing of civilians in Sudan has been uncovered by a NASA aerial survey which showed nearly 400 villages have been completely or substantially destroyed.

The existence of the photographs has been revealed by a United States aid chief, who said his organisation’s estimate that 350,000 people could die in the next nine months "is conservative".

Andrew Natsios, the administrator of the US Agency for International Development, also painted a shocking picture of the refugee camps inside Sudan where hundreds of thousands of black Africans have fled from brutal attacks by the Arab militia known as the Janjaweed.

Mr Natsios said his organisation’s latest assessment showed that, far from being safe havens, every single camp is either the subject of fighting or is under threat of attack.

According to UN figures, fighting in Darfur has driven more than one million people from their homes to other parts of Sudan and forced more than 150,000 to flee to neighbouring Chad. About two million in the region need outside aid.

Until now much of the evidence for the developing disaster in Darfur has come from those who have fled across the border to Chad in the wake of the attacks.

Journalists from The Scotsman who visited the country earlier this month recorded harrowing stories of murder at the hands of the militia.

Mr Natsios said the US had NASA take aerial photographs of the destruction of villages in Darfur. "We’ve now analysed 578 villages, 301 of which are completely destroyed, 76 of which are substantially destroyed," he said. "When we checked them on the ground, we confirmed what we found.

"We are going to watch them, using aerial photography for the duration to track what’s happening."

He warned that time was running out for the two million civilians in Darfur who desperately needed aid.

The reconnaissance also showed eight villages in Chad had been destroyed.

Mr Natsios put the blame for the crisis squarely on the Sudanese government, saying US and United Nations reports from the country show clearly that the Sudanese military is directly connected to Janjaweed fighting in Darfur.

"They arm them, they use them, and now they have to stop them," Mr Natsios said on Wednesday after meeting Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, who is planning to visit Sudan soon and make a first-hand assessment of the situation in Darfur.

Last week, Mr Annan said the UN had asked the Sudanese government to take steps to contain the Janjaweed.

The government denies any complicity in the militia attacks against the black African population, blaming the trouble in Darfur on rebels and criminal gangs, but Mr Annan said "from all accounts they can do something about the Janjaweed".

Mr Natsios said that despite constant announcements from the Sudanese government about "all the things they’ve done to improve things", virtually nothing has changed on the ground.

In order to run a relief operation, he said, four conditions were essential in every camp: security, an end to atrocities such as mass rapes or massacres; access to the people, which will be increasingly difficult with the start of the rainy season; and enough humanitarian workers from the United Nations and other organisations.

The latest weekly assessment of conditions in the 36 camps for displaced people in Darfur, which he released for the first time, showed that in every one security was poor and those taking refuge faced attacks or the threat of attacks.

"They’ve got to stop stonewalling the relief effort," Mr Natsios said of the government. "What they need to do is enforce the agreement they signed" in Chad on 8 April to allow humanitarian agencies into the area.

Fighting erupted in February 2003, when African tribes in Darfur rebelled against what they regarded as unjust treatment by the Sudanese government in their struggle over land and resources with Arab countrymen.

Thousands have been killed and more than one million have been forced from their homes.

On Saturday, Omar el-Bashir, the Sudanese president, ordered the military to begin disarming all militia groups.

But Michael Ranneberger, the US ambassador, said: "Until now, we have not seen any systematic action to rein in the Janjaweed. What we’ve seen is a series of half-steps by the government in response to international pressure."

As part of the increasing pressure on Sudan, Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, will visit the Darfur region next week to put pressure on Khartoum to stop the humanitarian crisis.

"The secretary will make clear our concern about the people in Darfur [and] will make clear that we believe that much of the hardship has been caused by the violence perpetrated by the militias," Richard Boucher, a State Department spokesman told reporters.

"The secretary’s visit to Sudan is intended to continue to call attention to the dire humanitarian situation in Darfur," Mr Boucher added.

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