Sudan denies U.N. access to Darfur village to check rape accusations

KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudan has refused to let U.N. and African Union peacekeepers visit a village in the western Darfur region to investigate allegations of mass rape for the second time this month, saying it was skeptical about the motives for the visit. The United Nations said Sudanese troops initially denied members of the joint peacekeeping mission, known as UNAMID, access to Tabit in north Darfur earlier this month. The force was later allowed to visit the area and said in a statement on Nov. 10 that it had found no evidence to substantiate media reports that Sudanese soldiers had raped about 200 women and girls there. But after that visit, Australian U.N. Ambassador Gary Quinlan, president of the Security Council this month, said the heavy presence of Sudan's military during UNAMID's interviews of alleged rape victims in Tabit had raised serious concerns. UNAMID said it intended to conduct further investigations and patrols in the area. But Sudan's foreign ministry issued a statement late on Sunday saying it had denied UNAMID entry to the area because the mission had sought to bypass Khartoum and had gone directly to Darfuri authorities for a permit on Saturday. "Sudan is skeptical about the motives behind the mission's insistence on a second visit to the Tabit area," the foreign ministry said. The United Nations issued a statement on Monday saying that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was concerned about the fact that UNAMID was again denied access to Tabit. "Only a full investigation by UNAMID will help shed light over these serious allegations," it said. "The Secretary-General therefore urges the Government of Sudan to grant UNAMID unfettered access, without further delay, to Tabit and its population so that these (rape) reports can be verified." Law and order have collapsed in much of Darfur, where mainly non-Arab rebels took up arms in 2003 against the Arab-led government in Khartoum, accusing it of discriminating against them. UNAMID has been deployed in the region since 2007. Last month, an internal U.N. review found that UNAMID had failed to provide U.N. headquarters in New York with full reports on attacks against civilians and peacekeepers. The review had been ordered in response to media reports alleging that UNAMID intentionally covered up details of deadly attacks. (Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz, additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Writing by Mahmoud Mourad, Editing by Lin Noueihed, Andrew Heavens and Ken Wills)