A top UN official said Tuesday as many as 300,000 people may have died in the Darfur conflict, amid warnings a joint UN-African Union peace force might not be fully operational before 2009.
UN humanitarian chief John Holmes told the Security Council that it was likely the death toll from five years of war, famine and disease in Darfur had risen in the past couple of years.
"A study in 2006 suggested that 200,000 had lost their lives from the combined effects of the conflict," he said.
"That figure must be much higher now, perhaps half as much again," he added, but he conceded this was just an "extrapolation."
Adding to the grim picture, the head of the joint UN and African Union mission, Rodolphe Adada, said the troop component of the UNAMID mission was unlikely to be completely up and running until next year.
The force "is at less than 40 per cent of its mandated level of 19,555 and it is very unlikely to achieve full-operating capability before 2009," he told the 15-member Security Council.
"We are going to try to speed up the deployment," he later told reporters. "Maybe we'll have 80 per cent of the force at the end of the year."
Adada, a former Congolese foreign minister, also told the council that UNAMID still lacked 24 critical attack and transport helicopters as well as key military engineers and logistical support.
And he again appealed to the council "to redouble its efforts" to help UNAMID overcome its current logistical and political obstacles.
Sudan's UN Ambassador Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem immediately dismissed the new toll given by Holmes, telling reporters: "In our own calculation, the total number (of deaths from fighting) does not exceed 10,000. This is the latest figure."
He said this tally did not include those Darfurians who died from diseases, malnutrition or starvation.
More than 2.2 million in Darfur are also believed to have fled their homes since the conflict broke out in the remote western region in February 2003.
Fighting erupted when ethnic minority rebels took up arms against the regime, fighting for resources and power in one of the most remote and deprived places on earth.
Queried later about how he arrived at the new figure, Holmes told reporters: "I am not saying I am sure. I said it's a reasonable hypothesis, a reasonable extrapolation from the previous figures from studies done elsewhere.
"I am not trying to suggest this is a very scientifically-based figure," he added.
Adada also painted a grim picture of prospects for peace between Khartoum and the fragmented Darfur insurgency.
"Unfortunately, it is commonly understood today in Darfur that peace is not all attractive, neither economically, nor politically," the UNAMID chief said. (AFP)