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Sudan, U.N. Sign Darfur Refugee Return Deal

The Sudanese government signed an agreement with the U.N. migration agency Saturday to ensure that more than 1 million people displaced by violence in the western region of Darfur (search) can voluntarily return home — but cannot be forced to do so.

The accord signed in Khartoum is part of efforts by Sudanese authorities to show the U.N. Security Council that Khartoum is moving to end what the United Nations (search) has called the world's worst humanitarian crisis. An estimated 30,000 people have been killed in Darfur and work," said Brunson McKinley (search), director general of the Geneva-based U.N. International Organization for Migration, adding, however, that the return of the displaced people "is not going to be (an) easy or quick" process.

The United Nations says the 18-month conflict has driven about 1.4 million people from their homes, many of whom are in camps in Darfur. Some 180,000 have fled to neighboring Chad.

Under Saturday's agreement, Sudanese authorities agreed to accept the U.N. agency's determination on whether people are ready to return home and to ensure the security of U.N. staff and the returnees. The government has been accused of backing the Arab militias and the guarantees were aimed at easing fears that security forces would force people to return home before it is safe.

Khartoum denies such claims.

"Now we have a mechanism that would dispel any doubts as to whether the return of the IDPs (internally displaced people) is voluntary or not," Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail said during the signing ceremony.

Ismail also called for international support to help enable the return home of those displaced by the conflict.

McKinley told reporters he had visited several displaced people camps in Darfur, where most people told him that they wanted to return home providing that security was ensured.

There have been allegations of Sudanese security forces trying to force displaced people living in camps dotted throughout Darfur's three states to return home, the IOM's chief in Sudan Paul Norton said, but he added that no cases have been confirmed.

Norton said it was crucial that displaced people are not forced to return home without proper security and suitable living conditions.

"We are talking about people who have been traumatized in one way or another, but ultimately the goal is to help these people go home and get on with their lives," Norton told The Associated Press in Egypt.

Fighting in Darfur has been raging since African rebels rose up against the government in February 2003 over what they regarded as unjust treatment by Sudanese authorities. The region's nomadic Arab tribes have long been at odds with their African farming neighbors over dwindling resources, particularly water and usable land.

Since then, armed bands of herders, most of them pro-government Arabs, known as the Janjaweed, have been torching village after village in the sprawling, arid region.

The U.N. Security Council has given the Sudanese government until Aug. 30 to disarm Arab militias blamed for the violence or face diplomatic and economic sanctions.