Cairo - The outgoing UN peacekeeping chief in Sudan's Darfur region said the world should no longer consider the long-running conflict a war after a sharp decline in violence and deaths over the past year.
Activists and Darfur residents disagree, and the comments by Rodolphe Adada heightened anxiety that there will be less international focus on resolving the root problems in the troubled region.
UN peacekeepers have recorded a sharp decline in fatalities from violence. There were 16 deaths in June, compared to an average 130 deaths per month last year.
"We can no longer talk of a big conflict, of a war in Darfur," Adada told The Associated Press this week before stepping down as head of the joint United Nations-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur, or UNAMID.
"I think now everybody understands it. We can no longer speak of this issue. It is over," he said.
The Darfur conflict began in February 2003 when ethnic African rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated Sudanese government in Khartoum, claiming discrimination and neglect.
UN officials say the war has claimed at least 300 000 lives from violence, disease and displacement. They say about 2,7 million people were driven from their homes and at its height, in 2003-2005, it was called the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
President Barack Obama's new envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration, caused an outcry in June when he said the violence in Darfur no longer amounted to genocide and then suggested easing sanctions against the Sudanese government.
Adding to the complications, violence is on the rise on another front in semi-autonomous southern Sudan, more than four years after a 2005 peace accord ended a separate 21-year civil war that left 2 million people dead. If violence there escalates, it could potentially overshadow Darfur.
Adada said the decline in violence in Darfur is an opportune time to push forward a peace process that so far has had no success.
During a visit to Darfur in July, Gration appealed to refugees in one of the largest camps to return to their villages. He also suggested easing sanctions against Sudan, telling a Senate hearing that month there was no longer any evidence to support the US designation of Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism.
His comments were welcomed in Sudan, which has always maintained the death toll in Darfur was greatly exaggerated and said it was fighting a counterinsurgency, not a war.
But they irked activists and Darfur residents, who fear the US is easing its pressure on Sudan's government.
"The perception ... that if it is not getting worse ... it (must be) getting better is something that takes the wind out of the sails of international action," said John Prendergast, one of former President Bill Clinton's pointmen on Sudan.
Prendergast says the new phase of violence in Darfur is a "breaking spirits" campaign, which seeks to demoralize the refugees.
The Darfur rebels have also dismissed Adada's declaration, saying government forces were still operating in the region and violence against civilians continues in the camps.
"There are no more people on their land to kill," said Abdelwahid Elnur, exiled leader of one of the oldest rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army, whose fighters are largely stationed in a central mountain hideout.
Adada, a former Congolese foreign minister, warned there could be a return to violence because the root causes of the conflict remain, and he urged the Darfur rebels to negotiate.
"The way of war is closed now. Let them go to negotiate at the table. They will achieve nothing in the battlefield," he said.
There has been a steady decline in violence, according to UNAMID, which recorded 16 deaths in June, down from 99 in May and 22 in April. More than 400 people were killed in the first three months of the year; in 2008, a total of 1,551 people were killed.
At the height of the conflict, government-allied militias known as the janjaweed burned down complete villages, government planes dropped bombs on populated areas and reports of rape by the gunmen abounded. Thousands ran for their lives from the armed fighters.
Meanwhile, billions of dollars continue to pour into the largest emergency aid program in the world - which is screened by the Khartoum government and President Omar al-Bashir. The International Criminal Court issued a warrant for the Sudanese leader in March on charges of orchestrating war crimes in Darfur.
Some experts say the problem with UNAMID's figures is they give the impression the worst is over even as millions continue to suffer in squalid refugee camps, living in fear of random violence by government-allied militias.
"I think unless we accept that UNAMID figures are very narrowly construed, we miss seeing some of the consequences of ongoing violence," said Eric Reeves, a Sudan researcher and professor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.
The deployment of the joint UN-African peacekeeping force in 2008 came after long and tortuous negotiations between the international community and a reluctant Sudanese government.
The joint force - mandated at 26 000 - took over from an ineffectual African Union force of 7 000. But UNAMID still operates at just 70 percent of its capacity and lacks tactical helicopters that can quickly reach conflict zones in a region larger than the size of California.
Adada says UNAMID has contributed to the decline in violence with its presence in rural areas and camps. However, many activists question whether the force has really been a factor in reducing violence.
Experts say one explanation for the drop in violence is the Khartoum government has largely achieved its counterinsurgency goals of depriving the rebels of their popular bases by driving civilians out of Darfur.
Rebel groups have fragmented, from three in 2003 to more than 30 factions living in disarray in mountain hideouts or across the border in Chad. Violence is often between rebel factions over territorial control. Banditry and kidnapping are also on the rise, often aimed at truck drivers bringing in aid.
For Sheik Saleh, a 42-year-old leader in the Kalma Camp in south Darfur, Gration's call for refugees to return to their villages would "make me a victim for the second time." Saleh, a father of seven, met with the US envoy when he visited the camp in July.
"My village was burned three times, and now it is occupied by new inhabitants. How can I go back there?" he said in a telephone interview from the camp. "Instead of supporting us after hearing our complaints, he came out ... supporting the Sudan government."
Saleh said insecurity and rape continue in the camp, where 33 residents were killed last year in one of the bloodiest attacks on a refugee camp.
Gration later issued a statement acknowledging the situation in Darfur remains dire and saying he supports "smart" sanctions on Sudan, and would not advocate an "untimely" return of refugees. - Sapa-AP