Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay have voiced deep concern about the escalation of violence and its impact on civilians in Sudan's Darfur region, and urged an immediate halt to hostilities.
Since late February, fighting between rebel groups and local militia in South Darfur has left thousands of people homeless, with reports of looting and villages burnt.
In North Darfur, over the past few days, thousands of people have fled inter-communal fighting and sought protection at the African Union-UN peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID) camp in Saraf Umra.
"The Secretary-General urges all parties to immediately cease hostilities and negotiate a peaceful settlement to these conflicts," Mr. Ban's spokesperson said in a statement issued last night.
"He calls on the Government of Sudan and warring parties to cooperate with UNAMID and humanitarian partners in providing access to conflict areas and ensure the protection of civilians, as well as the provision of assistance to those in need."
Ms. Pillay, in a news release issued today, said there has been a disproportionate use of force by armed groups in areas in South Darfur that are not military targets. "There must be an immediate halt to attacks on unarmed civilians", she stated.
The High Commissioner's Office (OHCHR) said that, according to witnesses, these groups have attacked some 45 villages in the Um Gunya area, approximately 50 kilometres south of Nyala, the capital of South Darfur state, since the end of February.
While it is difficult to ascertain the number of people killed, an estimated 50,000 civilians have been displaced amid looting and arson.
"I urge the authorities to protect civilians and hold to account those who have committed grave breaches of human rights and humanitarian laws," said Ms. Pillay, who also stressed that the Sudanese Government must allow UNAMID to fulfil its mandate to protect civilians, and grant access to populations in need.
She also noted that the attacks were adding to the number of internally displaced people (IDPs), with many of those fleeing ending up in camps in South Darfur such as Kalma and Al Salam, near Nyala, where the number of IDPs was close to 200,000 before the recent attacks.
"Their arrival is having an overwhelming impact on the already limited water, food and health care available in the camps. The increase in displacement is a worrying trend at a time when civilians were being encouraged to return to their villages of origin," she stated.