ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) _ The U.S. declaration that government-backed militiamen have committed genocide in Darfur is a ``big mistake'' that could hinder peace talks and undermine the role of African mediators in the conflict, Sudan's top officials said Friday.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said Thursday the killing, raping and displacement of black Africans by the Arab fighters known as the Janjaweed amounted to genocide in the western Darfur region of Sudan. The United States and aid groups accuse President Omar el-Bashir's government of backing the Janjaweed in the attacks on African villagers.
El-Bashir defended his government's efforts to address the Darfur crisis, saying Friday the Darfur region ``is moving toward constant improvement.'' He called the situation in Darfur ``reassuring'' and said life has been normalized in most of the areas affected by war.
Sudan's deputy foreign minister, Najeeb Al-Khair Abdel-Wahab, crticized Powell's comments.
``We don't think this kind of attitude can help the situation. ...We expect the international community to assist the process that is taking place in Abuja, and not put oil on the fire,'' he said.
Sudan government and rebel envoys have been attending Darfur peace talks in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, since Aug. 23 in an African Union-brokered effort to calm 19 months of violence that have left 30,000 dead and 1.2 million homeless. The United Nations calls it the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
The violence in Darfur began when black African tribes rebelled in February 2003, accusing the national government in Khartoum of neglecting their interests. In response, Powell said, Arab militias coupled with Sudanese military forces ``committed large-scale acts of violence, including murders, rape and physical assaults on non-Arab individuals.''
Abdel-Wahab, a top government negotiator in the peace talks, told reporters Powell's statement ``is sending a wrong signal'' to rebel delegates at the talks. The insurgents ``will bet on U.N. sanctions, they will want to wait for action to be taken by the U.N. Security Council _ and for that reason they will not be forthcoming in negotiations,'' he said.
``Colin Powell is making a big mistake,'' he said.
Mediators adjourned talks on Friday until Tuesday, saying little progress had been made.
Abdel Wahab said the U.S. genocide declaration shows that the country doesn't believe the African Union can end the Darfur crisis, thus undermining the bloc's efforts.
``What Colin Powell said also contradicts what the Americans have told us that they respect the leadership role and engagement of the African Union in the Darfur crisis,'' he said.
``He's undermining the efforts of the African Union, efforts by the two (rebel and government) parties and the international community seeking a solution to the question of Darfur.''
An earlier peace conference in Ethiopia ended without any resolution.
Rebel delegates said they share Powell's view on genocide and called for an international investigation to confirm it.
Powell's announcement came as the United States pressured the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions on Sudan's oil industry, among other measures, if the government does not take steps to improve security in Darfur and rein in the Janjaweed.
Sanctions are opposed by China and Pakistan, Security Council members that import Sudanese oil.
In recent interviews with 1,136 refugees in neighboring Chad, the State Department said it found a ``consistent and widespread pattern of atrocities committed against non-Arab villagers,'' according to a department report. It added that about a third of the refugees who were interviewed heard racial epithets while under attack.
Powell said that as a member of the 1948 international genocide convention, Sudan is obliged to prevent and punish acts of genocide.
Khartoum rejected the U.S. findings.
The 52-nation African Union said Friday its charter would force it to take action within Sudan if the bloc found ongoing genocide, but that no decision had yet been taken.
``If we find evidence, we shall not shy away from calling it genocide,'' said Sam Ibok, a top AU official. ``But we can't call it genocide at this point in time because we have not fully investigated it. For now we are preoccupied with saving lives,'' he said from AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
``No matter what terminology you call what has happened in Darfur it is serious enough,'' Ibok said. ``We do not have to designate it as genocide to be able to know that there is indeed a catastrophe.''
The African Union has about 300 troops in Darfur, protecting 80 military observers monitoring a roundly violated April cease-fire accord among Sudan's government and rebels. The AU is considering sending up to 3,000 troops to Darfur, but the Sudanese government resists the proposal saying it alone is responsible for internal security.