By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - United Nations experts warned that Sudan's remote western territories could become a breeding ground for radical Islamists as violence in the country's conflict-torn Darfur region rages at an alarming level.
Darfur has been embroiled in conflict since mainly non-Arab tribes took up arms in 2003 against the Arab-led government in Khartoum, accusing it of discrimination. The United Nations says as many as 300,000 have died and millions more displaced by the conflict.
The latest annual report by the U.N. Panel of Experts on Sudan, distributed on Friday, said the overall number of aerial bombardments by Sudanese government forces had declined.
But it described a "pattern of deliberate targeting of and/or indiscriminate attacks on civilians with actual or perceived allegiance to the armed opposition groups" - as well as sporadic attacks by rebel forces on those believed to support the government.
"The effects of this have resulted in 3,324 villages being destroyed in Darfur over the five-month period surveyed by the Darfur Regional Authority, from December 2013 to April 2014," the report said.
It also cited a significant number of new displacements in the region. According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, nearly half a million people were newly displaced last year in Darfur.
The experts said the security environment across Libya, the Sahel and the Middle East had deteriorated due to "radical Islamist agitation" and raised concerns about statements from Sudan that the government has supported Libyan rebels.
"The panel finds that Darfur could be 'potentially fertile ground' for infiltration by radical Islamists, owing to its porous borders and the cross-border family solidarity between Sudanese tribes and their African 'cousins' of Arab descent in the Central African Republic, Libya, Mali and the Niger," it said, adding that it was not yet able to quantify that threat.
The report also raised concerns about spillover from the civil war in South Sudan, which split from Sudan in 2011. South Sudan has previously accused Khartoum of backing rebel fighters.
In recent months, tensions have increased between Khartoum and the U.N.-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID).
Sudan said in November it had asked UNAMID to prepare an exit plan after denying peacekeepers permission to re-visit the site of alleged mass rapes by Sudanese soldiers in the Darfur village of Tabit.
The experts said sexual and gender-based violence in Darfur "continue(d) unabated since 2013."