- Associated Press - Thursday, March 5, 2015

UNITED NATIONS (AP) - A new report from the U.N. secretary-general says nearly half a million people were displaced in Darfur last year, the highest number in a decade for the chaotic region of western Sudan.

Ban Ki-moon’s latest update on Darfur comes as the U.N. begins meeting with Sudanese officials on plans for an exit strategy for the 20,000-plus peacekeeping mission.

Tensions have been high between the U.N. and Sudan, especially over a Human Rights Watch-documented mass rape of more than 220 women and girls in a Darfur village last year. The report blamed Sudanese army troops, while Sudan said its own investigation found not “a single case of rape.”

Ban’s report, posted online Thursday, says he deeply regrets that the U.N. has not been able to access the village, called Tabit.

More than 450,000 people were displaced throughout Darfur last year, the most since 2004.

A U.N. panel of experts has said government or government-aligned forces are mostly to blame for the recent spike in violence that caused those people to flee as more than 3,000 villages were destroyed.

Rebel forces have been fighting the Sudanese government since 2003 across the vast region, and more than 300,000 have been killed in the conflict. While Darfur became a global rallying cry in the early years of the fighting, international attention has turned to other crises including the rise of the Islamic State group.

The latest panel of experts report on Darfur, released in January, warned that Darfur is “potentially fertile ground” for Islamist militant groups.

The U.N. presence in Sudan is increasingly fragile. President Omar al-Bashir last year ordered the expulsion of top U.N. officials and called for an exit strategy for the joint U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur, which has been criticized for its effectiveness.

The U.N. Security Council a decade ago imposed an arms embargo for the Darfur region, but Sudan’s government has argued that does not apply to its security forces.

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