Facing a serious degradation in security and relief operations in Sudan's Darfur region which it has already called the world's worst humanitarian crisis, the United Nations today moved on both the political and aid fronts to halt the resurgence of violence and prepare for a possible new flood of refugees.
Meeting in New York, the Security Council enjoined all parties in the conflict, which pits the Government and militias against rebel forces - with more than two million civilians caught in between - to abide by previous ceasefire accords under threat of an unspecified "full range of options" to enforce compliance.
At the same time the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced plans to deal with a potential new influx into neighbouring Chad, while a major relief organization pulled out after four of its staff were killed in Darfur, where it provided health care, food support, child protection and education to some 250,000 children and family members.
The Security Council's call came shortly after Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned of deteriorating security in Darfur, where 1.65 million people have been displaced, and Janjaweed and pro-government militias stand accused of killing and raping thousands of villagers after rebels took up arms last year to demand a greater share of economic resources.
"The Government and the rebels must cease attacks and abide by their commitments," he said in an opening statement at his end of year press conference. "Ultimately, the Security Council must assume its responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security," he warned, calling for the accelerated deployment of African Union (AU) monitors, troops and police.
He declined to be drawn by a question asking whether the Council should enact some of the targeted sanctions they have threatened, from an arms embargo to travel against certain individuals, or whether the issue should be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) set up to judge war crimes.
But he did say: "There comes a time when you have to make a reassessment as to whether the approach you have taken is working or not. And if it is not working, what other measures do you take?" he asked, noting that in the past the Council had talked of sanctions and that a majority of Council members would want the ICC to play a role, although the United States has a problem with any referral to the court.
In a press statement read out by its President for December, Algerian Ambassador Abdallah Baali, after consultations on Darfur, the Council condemned the repeated violations of the ceasefire signed by the Government and rebels earlier this year and recalled its earlier resolutions demanding an end to hostilities, the protection of civilians and full cooperation with international humanitarian and monitoring efforts.
"The Security Council is actively monitoring the situation and, in this regard, expressed its readiness to consider a full range of options to exercise pressure on the parties to ensure full compliance," the statement said, also urging an accelerated AU deployment.
Deploring the deadly attacks that forced Save the Children UK to announce today that it was pulling out, the Council called on all parties to allow unimpeded access to humanitarian assistance and urged the UN's own Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) to increase its activities in Darfur.
Mr. Annan's Special Representative for Sudan, Jan Pronk, also reiterated "his strong condemnation of acts of violence targeting humanitarian workers," and paid tribute to the "valuable contribution of Save the Children UK and its dedicated staff in alleviating the suffering of victims of the Darfur conflict."
Anticipating a potential influx of refugees into Chad, UNHCR said the latest phase of its emergency airlift had enabled it to build up an overall contingency stock of relief items for up to 50,000 more people over and above the 200,000 who have already sought shelter in Sudan's western neighbour.
"But we are also extremely concerned about the capacity of eastern Chad to sustain any substantial new influx, given the chronic water shortage in an extremely arid region," agency spokesman Ron Redmond told a news briefing in Geneva.
The last in a series of 12 UNHCR flights from Belgium is due to arrive Thursday in Chad's capital, N'Djamena, with a consignment of portable warehouses. Other supplies, including blankets, buckets and plastic sheeting, were brought in on earlier flights. So far this year, the airlift has flown in 3,250 tons of aid and equipment on 88 flights from 11 different countries.
UNHCR is continuing to search for new camp sites either to decongest existing ones or receive any future influx. The viability of new sites depends first and foremost on the existence of a good water supply, and the results have often proved discouraging, heightening already serious concerns about the region's capacity to cope with more refugees, Mr. Redmond said.