By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - United Nations and African Union officials sounded an alarm on Thursday over the worsening violence in Sudan's western Darfur region, which has led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people this year in the remote, conflict-torn territory.
The expressions of concern came as a U.S. activist group released an analysis of new satellite images that it said showed signs of devastation in an area of Darfur in which Khartoum-backed Janjaweed fighters were recently present.
Joseph Mutaboba, deputy head of the joint U.N. peacekeeping mission in Darfur, known as UNAMID, and Ali Al-Za'tari, U.N. Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Sudan, issued a joint statement that said it had become extremely difficult to deliver aid to the needy people of Darfur.
"In the last month, a wave of violence has been underway in Darfur, affecting tens of thousands of people," they said. "Since the beginning of 2014, more than 215,000 people in Darfur have been displaced from their homes. Many people in Darfur have no choice but to flee their homes in fear."
"We call upon the Government of Sudan and all actors and parties involved in the conflict and the international community to take robust measures to ensure the protection of civilians and unimpeded access of aid workers in Darfur," they said.
Earlier this month the United States accused the Sudanese government of obstructing peacekeepers in Darfur, where it said civilians were being "terrorized, displaced, and killed" despite the presence of one of the world's biggest peacekeeping missions. It also urged UNAMID to be more aggressive in implementing its mandate to protect civilians.
Dozens have been killed in Darfur in recent weeks in fighting between rebels and security forces. Critics have accused the government of war crimes and human rights abuses among ethnic minorities in the region.
President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has stayed in power despite rebellions, U.S. trade sanctions, an economic crisis, an attempted coup and an indictment from the International Criminal Court on charges of masterminding genocide and other war crimes in Darfur.
NEW 'WAR CRIMES'?
Earlier this week senior U.N. humanitarian official John Ging told reporters that there had been nearly 400,000 newly displaced in Darfur in 2013. The displacements have continued.
Mutaboba and Za'tari's statement said the United Nations and wider humanitarian community were increasingly unable to deliver relief to the people of Darfur.
"Due to the access restrictions and security constraints placed upon humanitarian agencies, even monitoring the numbers of people who have been displaced from their homes is increasingly challenging," they said.
The Satellite Sentinel Project, a U.S. activist group, issued a report that said new DigitalGlobe satellite imagery from March 21 show at least 17 bomb craters and 311 burned homes across six villages in the mountainous Jebel Marra area.
"This new incarnation of Janjaweed fighters, now re-named the Rapid Support Forces but still supported by the Khartoum government, are now attacking Darfuri civilians and torching homes on a scale not seen since 2003," said the group's co-founder, John Prendergast.
Prendergast is a former U.S. State Department official who also co-founded the Enough Project, an anti-genocide group that has been active on the issue of Sudan and South Sudan.
Janjaweed is the local name for militia forces drawn mainly from the nomadic Arab tribes of the area and blamed for much of the killing in Darfur in the early years of the conflict.
The Satellite Sentinel Project statement said a combination of aerial and ground attacks in East Jebel Marra, a region that has been under a "government imposed humanitarian aid blockade", had put large numbers of civilians at risk.
Enough Project analyst Akshaya Kumar said the images "offer independent evidence of the Sudanese army's war crimes."
Sudan's U.N. ambassador did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
Law and order have collapsed in much of Darfur, where mainly African tribes took up arms in 2003 against the Arab-led government in Khartoum, which they accused of discriminating against them.
UNAMID has been deployed in the region since 2007. During that time almost 170 of its troops and police have been killed.
There are 14,500 troops and 4,500 police on the ground. The conflict in Darfur has killed as many as 300,000 people and displaced 2 million, according to the United Nations.
Khartoum puts the Darfur death toll at around 10,000.
(Reporting By Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Toni Reinhold)