"There is an acknowledgement that there is simply no military solution to the Darfur crisis," the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to Sudan, Jan Eliasson, told reporters in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, on Thursday. "That is a starting point for the way forward and that is the political road."

At a joint news conference with Salim Ahmed Salim, the AU’s special envoy to Darfur, Eliasson warned: "A missed opportunity, again on Darfur - not building on what we have achieved and not taking the chance now to finally get this conflict behind us - will be a serious mistake."

The two envoys have been in Khartoum and Darfur for talks with government and rebel representatives, in a renewed attempt to coax non-signatories to the May 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement to agree a truce. They also hoped to pressure the Sudanese government to halt its military campaign in the war-torn region.

"There cannot be a military solution to the crisis in Darfur," Salim said. "The result is only suffering, death and destruction for ordinary people."

Despite repeated promises by both the Sudanese government and rebels, there is little evidence on the ground to demonstrate that either side is committed to a peaceful solution to the crisis, observers say.

On the contrary, the violence has continued to escalate, threatening humanitarian operations across the vast region. This week, for example, the AU reported that Sudanese military planes had bombed two villages in North Darfur in direct violation of two ceasefire agreements. Sudanese officials said the bombardment was a defensive manoeuvre against rebels.

Salim said they had urged parties to the conflict to stop the violence. "We have been encouraged by the initial reaction of everybody we met on this issue - the importance of de-escalation of violence - and by the assurances from all the other parties that they will do the utmost to facilitate the operations of humanitarian organisations," he said.

"We are going to operate with a sense of urgency," the envoy added. "Because if you say ‘we will continue to consult and consult and consult,’ the more time you take, the more people will die."

According to aid workers, violence in Darfur has escalated since the signing of the Darfur accord between the government and one faction of the rebel Sudan Liberation Movement.

’’The humanitarian workers are exhausted...we heard from them clear expressions of fatigue, of frustration’’
Two factions refused to sign, complaining that it did not meet their basic demands of wealth and power-sharing. The rebel movements later fragmented and shifting alliances between rebel groups have resulted in continuing clashes with government forces.

Over the past year, a significant number of attacks have been directed at humanitarian workers, severely curtailing aid operations. Observers say the culprits remain largely unidentified due to growing confusion over which groups are politically motivated rebels and which are mere bandits.

The Darfur conflict started in 2003, when rebels took up arms complaining that the remote Darfur region remained undeveloped due to neglect by Khartoum’s powerful Islamist regime.

The Sudanese government responded by arming Arab Janjawid militias to contain the conflict; the militias instead launched a campaign of rape and murder, targeting black African communities.

Aid workers estimate that at least two million people have been made homeless by the conflict. The fighting has also spilled over into eastern Chad and northeastern Central African Republic, with the three countries trading accusations of supporting each other’s rebels.

Meanwhile, the UN Human Rights Council’s fact-finding mission on Darfur travelled to neighbouring Chad to interview refugees who have fled the war-torn region, having failed to secure Sudanese visas.

Speaking in New York, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was disappointed the team could not visit Sudan, and had raised the issue with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.