Jan Egeland, the UN under-secretary-general for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief, on Tuesday described the reasons Sudanese officials gave for denying him access to Darfur and then overflight rights to see Darfur refugees in Chad as "utter nonsense" and suggested Khartoum had a more nefarious motive.

 

"I think the main reason is that they don't want me to see the tens of thousands of people being displaced as we speak today," he said, speaking in Nairobi, Kenya, where he flew after being forced to cancel his trips.

 

He blamed Omar el-Bashir, the Sudanese president, for personally preventing him from traveling north, and said that he understood Kofi Annan, the UN chief, was calling al-Bashir to protest.

 

Egeland dismissed Khartoum's claims that his visit was inconvenient and his security could not be guaranteed, as well as claims that his Norwegian nationality posed a problem because of the uproar over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in Norwegian newspapers.

 

He noted that he had been barred from visiting Darfur in 2004 "when ethnic cleansing was at its worst."

 

'The worst crisis' 

 

Egeland said that international interest in Darfur was waning, noting chronic funding shortages and escalating violence.

 

"We are losing ground," he said of the UN mission in Darfur, currently its largest humanitarian operation in the world. "It is again becoming perhaps the worst crisis in the world."

 

Egeland urged world powers to pressure Khartoum to act to stop increasing violence and harassment directed at civilians and aid workers, including the obstruction of his trip.

 

He called the ban part of "an endless string of constant administrative obstacles to our work," saying non-governmental organizations trying to work in Darfur were finding it hard to receive work permits, fuel and other necessities.

 

Khartoum has failed to make good on promises to ensure peace in the region and blames rebels for increasing attacks on civilians and humanitarian workers. It has also resisted attempts to replace a current African Union (AU) force with UN peacekeepers, a move strongly backed by Egeland.

 

Egeland described the AU force as "is too small", and said that some 200,000 people had been forced from their homes this year already.

 

"These are atrocities of incalculable proportions," said Egeland.

 

Sudan's government and rebels in Darfur have made little headway in peace talks in Abuja, Nigeria.

 

Since 2003, some 300,000 people have died and some two million have been displaced in Darfur, where the Sudanese army and allied Arab militia are fighting rebels from minority African tribes.