- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 14, 2016

UNITED NATIONS (AP) - The United Nations said Tuesday it has verified that 80,000 people have fled a conflict that began in January in Darfur’s Jebel Marra region, a stronghold of a Sudan Liberation Army faction which is one of the main rebel groups fighting Sudanese security forces.

U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told the U.N. Security Council that the U.N. humanitarian office has received reports of as many as 127,000 more people who have been displaced by fighting, particularly in central Darfur, but the number can’t be verified because of lack of access.

He said 2.6 million people remain displaced in Darfur, with 1.6 million civilians living in some 60 camps in the vast western region in Sudan.

Darfur has been gripped by bloodshed since 2003 when rebels took up arms against the government in Khartoum, accusing it of discrimination and neglect, a charge the government denies. The United Nations estimates 300,000 people have died in the conflict.

Ladsous said the joint U.N.-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur known as UNAMID whose primary mandate is protecting civilians is facing challenges because of the government’s denial of access especially to conflict areas like Jebel Marra as well as restrictions on freedom of movement, denials and delays on visa requests, and delays in clearing shipments.

He said that at a May 23 meeting with the U.N. and AU, the Sudanese government reiterated its commitment to resolve these issues. Since then, he said, the foreign minister has also committed to addressing the challenges.

“We hope that these assurances will result in much needed progress on the ground,” Ladsous said.

He said the U.N. and AU have continued discussions with the Sudanese government on an exit strategy for UNAMID, but haven’t reached an agreement. UNAMID currently has about 17,400 troops, military observers and police.

Ladsous said that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has recommended extending UNAMID’s mandate for 12 months until June 30, 2017 without changing its priorities or numbers.

He said the AU Peace and Security Council endorsed the recommendation on Monday and he reiterated Ban’s request for the Security Council “to similarly do so.”

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