In a new signal of its concern over the humanitarian crisis in Sudan, the Bush administration Thursday declared for the first time that the African country's troops and allied militias had committed genocide.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told senators that a State Department report drawn from interviews with 1,000 Sudanese refugees had concluded there was a "consistent and widespread pattern of atrocities committed against non-Arab villagers" in the Darfur region.
Speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Powell said that the Sudanese government and the militias, known as janjaweed, "bear responsibility" for the atrocities and that "genocide may still be occurring."
Human rights groups have been pressing for such a declaration, hoping to increase international pressure to resolve what is considered the world's worst ongoing humanitarian crisis. The United Nations estimates that 50,000 blacks have died and 1.2 million have been displaced as government and allied fighters have attacked village after village in Darfur since a rebellion erupted there in early 2003.
But views differed on whether the new U.S. stand would provide momentum for a solution, since many nations oppose international intervention. At the United Nations, some diplomats even predicted a backlash.
"It will make a difference," said Pakistani Ambassador Munir Akram, whose country opposes intervention. "It is bound to make things more difficult."
Powell played down the possibility that the new U.S. position would make much of a difference, even though some people "seem to have been waiting for this determination of genocide" in order to take action.
"In fact, however, no new action is dictated by this determination," Powell said. "We have been doing everything we can to get the Sudanese government to act responsibly. So let us not be preoccupied with this designation of genocide."
He noted that Sudan was a party to the international genocide convention and, under the agreement, was obliged to prevent and punish acts of genocide. But, Powell said, "to us, at this time, it appears that Sudan has failed to do so."
Sudanese Ambassador Elfatih Mohammed Ahmed Erwa dismissed the U.S. determination of genocide and its call for a U.N.-backed investigation of human rights violations in Darfur.
In a statement to the U.N. Security Council, Erwa said that a summit of heads of state of the African Union in July had concluded there had been no genocide in Darfur. The Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Conference reached the same conclusion, he said.
The Bush administration has been trying to build pressure on Sudan at the U.N. by submitting a resolution that requests a genocide investigation and calls for oil sanctions if Khartoum does not halt the violence in Darfur. It also demands that Sudan allow the expansion of a small regional military force that is now in the country.
U.S. officials want an African Union force of 3,000 to 4,000 to protect civilians and investigate abuses.
The Security Council began talks on the U.S. resolution on Thursday. But even before the 15 members entered the council chamber, the Chinese ambassador hinted that he would veto the resolution and Pakistan's envoy said he would abstain from voting if the draft was not changed.
China's main objection concerns sanctions, which it considers counterproductive. Adding the designation of genocide would only confuse matters, said Ambassador Wang Guangya. "Our intention is to help solve the problem, not to make it more complicated," he said.
Akram, Pakistan's ambassador, said the Security Council would have supported a U.N. genocide investigation before Powell announced the State Department's conclusion.
"If you've already branded it as genocide before you begin the inquiry, it makes it look as if you're prejudging the result," Akram said.
Conflicting conclusions by other groups may also complicate the issue. The U.N.'s emergency relief coordinator, Jan Egeland, has declared that "ethnic cleansing" was occurring in Sudan, but Secretary-General Kofi Annan has not used the term "genocide," saying that the important thing was not the label, but alleviating the crisis.
Groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International also have avoided using the term.
The European Union said its fact-finding mission in August had not turned up adequate evidence for a declaration of genocide.
The Bush administration is under pressure from humanitarian groups and others who contend that U.S. diplomatic efforts are too weak. Critics note that the Security Council adopted a resolution threatening penalties in July but did nothing when a 30-day deadline passed.
The U.S. Congress, hoping to build pressure for action, had declared in a resolution in July that the attacks in Darfur amounted to genocide.
Members of the Senate panel said they generally supported the administration's approach, but the committee chairman, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), voiced concern. He said many Americans feared that the United States and its allies might be wasting time by making demands of Sudanese leaders without a credible threat of military force.
Richter reported from Washington and Farley from the United Nations.