The United Nations has been trying for weeks to investigate reports that Sudanese soldiers raped over 200 women and girls in late October in the village of Tabit, North Darfur. A leaked internal UN report says the Sudanese military is deliberately making it hard for its peacekeepers to investigate the claims, intimidating the villagers the first time the UN investigators tried went to the village, then denying the investigators access when they tried to come back a second time.

The details of the alleged mass rape have been shared by villagers with several Sudanese media outlets. There's a military garrison near Tabit; an unnamed village elder told Radio Dabanga that soldiers swarmed the village at nightfall on Halloween, claiming they were looking for a missing soldier. The elder said the soldiers used that pretext to shoo the men of the village out with the butts of their guns, then rape the women, including at least 80 minors. The witness claimed the attack lasted for eight hours, and that the soldiers then wouldn't allow the injured women to be transferred to a larger nearby city for medical care or to the base for UNAMID, the UN aid effort for civilians in Darfur. (There's been persistent instability in western Sudan since a civil war in 2003, and fighting between the Sudanese government and rebel groups remains a daily fact of life. The conflict is believed to have displaced some 30,000 people.)

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Sudan Armed Forces spokesman Colonel Al-Sawarmi Khaled Saad has consistently dismissed the rape reports, saying at a press conference in early November that the allegations were "baseless and without justification." He said, too, that 200 women couldn't have been raped, given that Tabit is a small village and there aren't more than 100 soldiers at the garrison. He added, "Therefore, this accusation is illogical and does not resemble to the moral values of Sudanese, whether they are military or not. This is impossible."

Publicly, UNAMID agreed with Colonel Saad, writing in a press release on November 10 that they'd uncovered no evidence of mass rape:

The team spent several hours touring the village and interviewing a variety of Tabit's residents; including community leaders, ordinary men and women, teachers and students to ascertain the veracity of the media reports. Village community leaders reiterated to UNAMID that they coexist peacefully with local military authorities in the area. The team also interviewed the local Sudanese Armed Forces Commander.

None of those interviewed confirmed that any incident of rape took place in Tabit on the day of that media report. The team neither found any evidence nor received any information regarding the media allegations during the period in question.

Privately, though, the UNAMID investigators had serious concerns. A leaked internal report said that Sudanese soldiers followed the investigators and recorded interviews with the villagers they spoke to, adding: "The behavior and responses of interviewees indicated an environment of fear and intimidation." From the Agence France-Presse story on the contents of the leaked report:

"Some of the sub-teams had to ask the military personnel to stop following them and also asked them to allow the conduction of interviews in some privacy," it added.

The report quoted a villager in Tabit who said the soldiers had told the community "not to provide information to UNAMID" and that "reportedly a committee was formed to interact" with the fact-finding mission.

(You can read the full leaked report here.)

UNAMID asked permission from Sudanese authorities to enter the village a second time and were denied. That means they've been unable to do any kind of thorough, independent investigation into the rape claims. And it doesn't look like that'll change any time soon: last week, after weeks of pushing to get access again, the UN and UNAMID said they'd received an official notice from Sudan that they were being asked to close their human rights office in Khartom, essentially kicking them out of the country. Sudanese authorities didn't mention the rape investigation as the cause, although that's widely believed to be the case; instead, they accused UNAMID peacekeepers themselves of committing rape and other ""worrying abuses and violations."

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Sudan's ambassador to the United Nations, Rahamtalla Mohamed Osman Elnor, also recently made it clear he didn't believe the allegations. Reuters reports that he told the UN Security Council that it's not "conceivable that 200 women and girls could have been raped in a village without anybody avenging the honor of their daughter or their wife, without anybody reporting the incident."

Villagers in Tabit walk near a truck carrying government troops. Image via AP