The Sudanese government grants "broad immunity" to its security officers for rights violations in Darfur and minimizes the scale of the killings and rapes taking place there, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said Friday.

In a statement issued at the end of a six-day visit to Sudan, Louise Arbour said that while government security forces maintain a high profile throughout Darfur, "there is no apparent minimum level of physical protection for the communities affected by the conflict. On the contrary, the pervasive presence of the national security apparatus inspires fear and apprehension among internally displaced persons and their host communities."

Arbor said that in the 18 months since she first visited Darfur in late 2004, the situation in Sudan's western region was "just as critical and in some respects worse."

"There are continuing attacks on civilians, raids and pillaging of villages and rape and gender-based violence," she said.

CountryWatch: Sudan

Members of Darfur's African ethnic groups rose in revolt in early 2003, provoking a counter-insurgency in which pro-government militia conducted widespread killings and destruction. More than 180,000 people have been died in the conflict — many of disease and hunger — and another 2 million people have been displaced.

Peace talks are currently under way in the Nigeria capital of Abuja with the United States, Britain and the African Union exerting pressure on the rebel parties that have so far refused to sign a draft settlement. The government and one of the rebel groups have accepted the document.

Arbour said the government's security forces required fundamental overhaul.

"A crucial part of this reform is the abolition of the broad immunity granted to officers of the security apparatus," she said.

She added that during her visit to Darfur, she heard reports of rebel violence against civilians and humanitarian workers.

"A particularly worrying development is the proliferation of armed groups (with no clear allegiances or political aims) engaged in criminal activity," she said.

"Despite a number of measures taken by the authorities, notably the establishment of special courts and committees, impunity remains the norm in most cases of human rights violations in Darfur," she added.

The government has acknowledged that rights abuses have occurred in Darfur but it has long denied that they are systematic. It has also denied supporting the pro-government militia, the Janjaweed, which is blamed for the bulk of abuses.

"In discussing the critical situation in Darfur with Sudanese local and national authorities I was struck, as I was during my first visit, by their efforts to minimize the gravity of the problem," Arbour said.