EL FASHER, Sudan (AP) -- A U.N. Security Council team visiting Darfur expressed deep concerns Friday over the increase in violence in the western Sudanese region, worries that were underscored by the kidnapping the previous day of a peacekeeper serving with the joint U.N.-African Union mission in the area.
The U.N. members are on a fact-finding trip that started in southern Sudan earlier in the week, ahead of a January independence referendum that will determine whether the south will split off from the rest of the country. There are fears the vote could lead to a new outbreak of north-south civil war in Sudan, Africa's largest country.
As the U.N. delegation arrived in Darfur on Thursday, armed men raided a residence housing three international peacekeepers in downtown El Fasher, the capital of the North Darfur state, according to UNAMID spokesman Chris Cycmanick.
Cycmanick said three gunmen initially grabbed the peacekeepers and made away in a UNAMID car. Two of the abducted managed to escape from the moving vehicle, while the third - a Hungarian civilian - is still missing. It was the first attack on the mission in central El Fasher. Cycmanick said the getaway car was later found abandoned in town.
Mark Lyall Grant, the British ambassador to the U.N., said the attack didn't appear linked to the U.N. visit but that it was a sign of the recent uptick in violence. The Council members said they were particularly alarmed with attacks targeting the international peacekeepers and aid workers operating in Darfur.
"There is a climate of insecurity here in Darfur and the level of violence has gone up this year, compared to previous years," Lyall Grant said. "We are very concerned."
"I think it is an indication of the very difficult conditions in which all the UN workers and international workers are operating in here in Darfur," Lyall Grant said.
Another UNAMID spokesman, Kemal Saiki, said the mission hadn't heard from the attackers so far. "We had incidents of carjacking. We have incidents of armed robberies ... to my knowledge, as far as I can remember, this is the first time this happened here in El Fasher," he said.
Kidnappings are common in Darfur and kidnappers have mostly have demanded ransom in recent cases, but some have made political statements.
When voicing their concerns, Council members were met with denial from North Darfur Governor Osman Kebir who claimed that the level of violence and crime rates are declining. Kebir accused the British ambassador of prejudice when Lyall Grant alleged that "violent deaths have gone up 250 percent since last year."
"You look at this with one eye, and you hear with one ear," responded Kebir.
Fighting in Darfur began with a 2003 rebellion by African rebel groups who accused the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum of neglecting the vast desert region. The war has left up to 300,000 people dead and forced 2.7 million to flee their homes, according to U.N. figures.
The mass atrocities have resulted in the International Criminal Court filing charges of genocide against President Omar al-Bashir. The council delegation is not meeting with al-Bashir during this visit because of the charges, although it is expected to visit the capital, Khartoum.
In Darfur, hundreds of pro-government supporters chanted slogans against the U.S. and in support of al-Bashir as the Council members arrived in El Fasher. One sign read: "No for politicization of international justice."
Later in the day, the Council members met with leaders of a nearby refugee camp, then took a quick tour. They were told by residents - the camp houses tens of thousands of people - that there wasn't enough food and that people were afraid to return to their villages for fear of militias known as janjaweed, who have been blamed for Darfur's atrocities.
"What I took away is, first of all, a continuing severe humanitarian situation, which is deteriorating," said Susan Rice, the American ambassador to the U.N.
Rice said the very serious, enduring problems stem from the government's decision last March to expel 13 international aid groups, leaving major gaps that cannot be filled. She added that the local government was not supplying accurate information about what was going on.
"So the humanitarian issues are real and enduring, despite what we were told by the governor," she said. "I think much of what we heard from the government was counter-factual and strained credulity."
The Darfur conflict is separate from the 21-year civil war between the predominantly Arab and Muslim north and rebels in the Christian-animist south that ended with a 2005 peace agreement.
The January referendum was part of that peace deal. The disputed oil-rich region of Abyei, which straddles the north-south boundary in Sudan, is due to hold a separate vote the same day, deciding whether to be part of the north or the south.
Vote preparations are behind schedule, but Security Council diplomats say the votes must proceed on time to avoid re-igniting the catastrophic civil war.