Hollywood actor George Clooney on Wednesday accused the Sudanese government of committing war crimes in a mountainous border region, which he and U.S. officials said was teetering dangerously on the brink of a humanitarian crisis.
Mr. Clooney, who returned this week from a trip to Sudan, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he witnessed aerial bombardments by Sudanese forces that sent civilians scurrying to take shelter in caves in the Nuba Mountains.
He described seeing children’s bodies filled with shrapnel and meeting a 9-year-old boy who had had both his hands blown off when 15 bombs were dropped on a village.
“It is a campaign of murder and fear and displacement and starvation,” said Mr. Clooney, who has been campaigning for the past decade to highlight the human tragedy in Sudan.
Sudanese President Omar Bashir, Defense Minister Abdel Raheem Muhammad Hussein and former Interior Minister Ahmed Mohammed Haroun have been indicted by the International Criminal Court over war crimes in Sudan’s western state of Darfur.
“And now they are proving themselves to be the greatest war criminals of this century, by far,” Mr. Clooney said.
The United Nations estimates that more than half a million people have been forced to flee or have been severely affected by the fighting between the Sudanese military and southern rebels in the states of Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan.
Both states abut the border with South Sudan, which became independent in July. Southern rebels who remained in the north after July have been involved in a war with Sudanese forces.
Princeton N. Lyman, the U.S. special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, called on the Sudanese government to end the bombardments immediately and allow unrestricted humanitarian access to civilians in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile.
Testifying before the Senate committee, he said the government of South Sudan also must halt all military, economic and logistical support for armed groups that seek to overthrow Lt. Gen. Bashir’s government.
Gen. Bashir is expected travel to South Sudan’s capital, Juba, for a meeting with President Salva Kiir Mayardit. The proposed meeting, expected to take place within the next two weeks, is an attempt to defuse tensions that have erupted between the neighbors.
Mr. Lyman welcomed Gen. Bashir’s decision to visit Juba but was cautiously optimistic about the prospects of a breakthrough.
“The two countries decided to step back from the brink. They looked at each other and said, ‘We are going in the wrong direction,<k20>’<k$>” Mr. Lyman said.
“We have seen these recommitments before. So while we take a great deal of hope from them, a lot will depend on what happens over the next several weeks,” he added.
The meeting in Juba likely will focus on two issues: the protection of southerners living in the north and northerners in the south, and the demarcation of borders between the two countries.
In January, South Sudan cut off the flow of oil to Sudanese refineries following a dispute with the government in Khartoum. The move crippled the economies of both nations, which rely on oil for a significant portion of their income.
Sen. John F. Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the South Sudanese government’s decision to shut off the oil may have been justified but also was “self-defeating.”
Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, the senior Republican on the committee, noted that the 2005 peace agreement between Sudan and the southern rebels held out the promise that both sides would share the petroleum wealth.
“Instead, however, oil exports have stopped, putting an upward pressure on oil prices globally,” he added.
The U.S. imports no oil from Sudan. However, the absence of Sudanese crude from the world market puts pressure on oil prices.
“What happens in Sudan matters very much to us now, economically,” Mr. Clooney said.
Mr. Lyman said that even if a deal on oil is reached soon, it could take up to four months before oil revenues start flowing again.
“[T]hat is worrisome,” he added.
Southern rebels in the Nuba Mountains have joined forces with two rebel groups in Darfur.
The Sudanese government has blocked humanitarian aid from reaching areas controlled by the rebels in Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan.
Nancy Lindborg, an assistant administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development, said up to 250,000 people in these two states will be “one step short of famine by the end of April” if the violence does not stop.
Mr. Clooney suggested that the United States put pressure on Khartoum by working with China, which imports a majority of Sudanese oil and is most affected by the shutdown. He also suggested freezing the assets of Sudanese officials wanted for war crimes.
Mr. Clooney has used his star power to put the international spotlight on Sudan. However, he acknowledged a “misery fatigue” among an audience constantly exposed to news of conflict.
On Thursday, he will brief President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on his trip to Sudan.