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Sudan defends alleged attacker

KHARTOUM, Sudan -- A top Sudanese official yesterday defended an accused ringleader of Arab militia attacks on African villagers as a legitimate tribal leader and warned any attempt to go after such men could ignite warfare.

Separately, the UN refugee chief said Khartoum has agreed to a stepped-up UN civilian role and possible expansion of an African Union monitoring team in the western Sudanese region of Darfur, where 19 months of conflict have left more than 50,000 dead and uprooted 1.4 million.

The US State Department has named Sheik Musa Hilal and six other Sudanese as suspected coordinators of the government-allied Janjaweed, the Arab militia blamed for the Darfur violence.

But Sudan's state minister for foreign affairs defended Hilal as a prominent tribal chief.

Hilal ''has nothing to do with the Janjaweed. He is a tribal leader, of a very big, very significant tribe," Minister Najeib el-Kheir Abdelwahab said.

Sudan welcomed any international attempt to pinpoint Janjaweed leaders, Abdelwahab said. But ''by not adequately identifying the leaders of the Janjaweed, by pointing to some tribal leaders . . . if we are not cautious about that, you will ignite a significant tribal conflagration."

Darfur's bloodletting started in February 2003, when two non-Arab African rebel groups launched attacks on government and military targets to press for a greater share of power for Darfur.

According to international officials, Hilal used government funds to set up militia training camps to quash the rebellions.

The Sudanese military and Janjaweed militia are accused of raids that destroyed non-Arab villages.

At the United Nations, Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail said the Bush administration is inflating the severity of the situation by calling it genocide to deflect attention from Iraq.

Associated Press reporter Tarek El-Tablawy contributed to this report from the United Nations.

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