KABKABIYA, Sudan — Former President Jimmy Carter confronted Sudanese security services on a visit to Darfur Wednesday, shouting "You don't have the power to stop me!" at some who blocked him from meeting refugees of the conflict.
The 83-year-old Carter, in Darfur as part of a delegation of respected international figures known as "The Elders," wanted to visit a refugee camp. But the U.N. mission in Sudan deemed that too dangerous.
Instead, Carter agreed to fly to the World Food Program compound in the north Darfur town of Kabkabiya, where he was supposed to meet with ethnic African refugees, many of whom were chased from their homes by militias and the Arab-dominated government's forces.
But none of the refugees showed up and Carter decided to walk into the town — a volatile stronghold of the pro-government janjaweed militia — to meet refugees too frightened to attend the meeting at the compound.
He was able to make it to a school where he met with one tribal representative and was preparing to go further into town when Sudanese security officers stopped him.
"You can't go," the local chief of the feared Sudanese secret police, who only gave his first name as Omar, ordered Carter. "It's not on the program!"
"We're going to anyway!" an angry Carter retorted as a small crowd began to gather around. "You don't have the power to stop me."
However, U.N. officials told Carter's entourage the powerful Sudanese state police could bar his way.
"We've got to move, or someone is going to get shot," warned one of the U.N. staff accompanying the delegation.
Carter's traveling companions, billionaire businessman Richard Branson and Graca Machel, the wife of former South African President Nelson Mandela, tried to ease his frustration, and his Secret Service detail urged him to get into a car and leave.
"I'll tell President Bashir about this," Carter said, referring to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.
Omar, the security chief, said Carter had already breached security once by walking to the school and would not be allowed to breach it again.
"We are in the security field. We're not that flexible," he said after the confrontation ended.
In an interview with The Associated Press later in the day, Carter played down the encounter, saying the security chief was only doing his job.
"But it's true that I'm not accustomed to people telling me I can't walk down the street and meet people," he said.
Branson said some refugees had slipped notes in his pockets.
"We (are) still suffering from the war as our girls are being raped on a daily basis," read one of the notes, translated from Arabic, that Branson handed to the AP.
The note said that on Sept. 26, a group of girls had been raped, one of them a 10-year-old, and that a refugee had been shot two days ago. Branson said it had been handed over by an ethnic African man.
"All (refugees) living in the town of Kabkabiya are vulnerable prisoners who live under injustice and intimidation," the note also said.
For the most part, the refugees here appeared too frightened to speak to the visiting delegation. The single refugee representative Carter managed to meet at the school pleaded with an AP reporter out of earshot of Sudanese security for Carter to ensure he would not face government retaliation. Carter then went back to the man and wrote down his name, assuring him he would look out for his safety.
Most of the community leaders the mission met during its two-day visit to Darfur appeared to be government-vetted, and several ethnic African delegates told AP they had been intimidated by authorities into turning down invitations from "the Elders."
"This illustrates the challenges that communities and humanitarian workers face in Darfur," said Orla Clinton, spokeswoman for the U.N. Mission in Sudan, who witnessed the incident.
More than 200,000 people have been killed since the conflict in the western Sudanese region of Darfur began in 2003 when ethnic African rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated Sudanese government, accusing it of decades of discrimination. Sudan's government is accused of retaliating by unleashing a militia of Arab nomads known as the janjaweed — a charge it denies.
The visit by "The Elders," which is headed by Nobel Peace Prize laureates Carter and Desmond Tutu, is largely a symbolic move by a host of respected figures to push all sides to make peace.
The group made Darfur its first mission, trying to use their influence at a crucial time in the conflict. A peacekeeping force of 26,000 United Nations and African Union troops is to begin deploying later this month while new peace talks between the government and rebels are set for the end of the month in Libya.
Tensions in Darfur are running high after rebels overran an African Union peacekeeping base in northern Darfur over the weekend, killing 10 in the deadliest attack on the beleaguered force since it arrived in the region three years ago.
Tutu led a separate group to a refugee camp in South Darfur, where he told British Broadcasting Corp. radio the joint African Union-U.N. force was needed immediately.
"It's awful that AMIS (African Mission in Sudan) should be allowed to be here when it is so inadequately equipped — I mean they couldn't evacuate their injured from the camp after the attack because they don't have military helicopters," he said, referring to the weekend attack on the African Union base.
Carter accused the international community of neglect for taking too long to mobilize over Darfur.
"Because of Iraq, this crisis had been simmering at a lower level," he told the AP.
However, he said he disagreed with Bush and others who called the killings in Darfur a genocide.
"Rwanda was definitely a genocide; what Hitler did to the Jews was; but I don't think it's the case in Darfur," Carter said. "I think Darfur is a crime against humanity, but done on a micro scale. A dozen janjaweed attacking here and there," he said, noting many refugees have survived the violence.
"I don't think the commitment was to exterminate a whole group of people, but to chase them from their water holes and lands, killing them in the process at random," he said. "I think you can call it ethnic cleansing."
He also vowed to hold world powers to their pledge of ending this "crime against humanity."