KHARTOUM, Sudan – The Sudanese president and Cabinet ministers convened for an exceptional session in Darfur on Sunday as part of a government effort to showcase that the troubled western Sudanese region is now largely pacified.
"We would like to stress that the situation in Darfur is not the (world's) worst humanitarian tragedy, as western media describe it," President Omar al-Bashir told thousands of supporters at a rally in the North Darfur state capital of El Fasher after holding his Cabinet meeting.
Al-Bashir said his three-day tour across Darfur showed that insecurity was not prevalent there anymore. His visit came as the U.N. and various humanitarian groups report near daily occurrences of violence, car hijackings and clashes throughout the vast, arid region nearly the size of France.
The United Nations says over 200,000 people have died in Darfur since 2003, when local rebels from ethnic African tribes took up arms against the Arab-dominated central government, accusing it of decades of neglect and discrimination.
The U.N. blames the government-sponsored janjaweed militias for the bulk of the atrocities against African villagers. A cabinet minister and a suspected janjaweed chief have been charged with 51 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Al-Bashir's government contests these figures, but has agreed to disarm the janjaweed as part of a peace agreement signed last year with one rebel group.
"Our visit has shown that most of Darfur is now enjoying real peace and that people are leading a normal daily life," said the president, who has avoided touring the region's multiple refugee camps where over 2 million people live since their villages were destroyed.
The president has visited Darfur on several occasions, but the current tour with Cabinet ministers was his first trip to the remote region since a peace agreement was signed in May 2006.
Though the U.N. says violence has only worsened since the peace deal, Khartoum resisted for months a push for U.N. peacekeepers to replace an overwhelmed African Union mission now in the region. In June, Khartoum finally agreed to a "hybrid force" of some 26,000 U.N. and African troops, which could still take months to come.
Al-Bashir was due to fly to El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, on Monday before returning to Khartoum.