LONDON -- The death toll in Darfur has been underestimated and is likely to be around 300,000, British lawmakers said yesterday, calling the international response to the human tragedy ''scandalously ineffective."
But an official in Prime Minister Tony Blair's government said the death toll remains unknown and Britain and other nations are doing all they can to support the African Union, which has 3,000 soldiers and cease-fire monitors in Sudan's western region.
''The honest truth" is that nobody knows the real death toll, Hilary Benn, the government's international development secretary, said on Channel 4 television.
Conflict has engulfed Darfur since February 2003, when two non-Arab rebel groups took up arms against the Arab-dominated government to win more political and economic rights for the region's African tribes.
Sudan's Arab government is accused of responding by backing militiamen known as the Janjaweed who have carried out rapes and killings against Sudanese of African origin. The government denies backing the Janjaweed.
Earlier this month, the United Nations estimated that since October 2003, about 180,000 people had died as a result of the upheaval, with about 2 million people displaced.
UN officials said that while the March estimate included some deaths due to violence, most were because of disease and starvation.
A report by the International Development Committee of Britain's House of Commons said a World Health Organization estimate that 70,000 people had died from indirect effects of disease and hunger in the Darfur region was ''a gross underestimate."
The report, finished before the United Nations released its revised estimate, said the total number of dead is likely to be ''somewhere around 300,000."
The document, published yesterday, accused the international community of a ''scandalously ineffective response" to the situation in Darfur and said governments across the world were guilty of failing to deal with the crisis.
The report said early warnings about the emerging crisis were ignored, humanitarian agencies were slow to respond, and the UN suffered from an ''avoidable leadership vacuum" in Sudan at a critical time.
It also criticized the UN Security Council as ''divided, weak, and ineffective," saying it had been driven by member states' interests in oil and exporting arms.
''One of the tragedies about Darfur is that for the whole of the early part of this disaster the international community seemed to turn its eyes away," committee chairman Tony Baldry told British Broadcasting Corp. radio.
The report recommended referring the crisis to the International Criminal Court and introducing targeted sanctions and an extension of the arms embargo to cover the Sudanese government.
On Tuesday, the Security Council voted to strengthen its arms embargo on Darfur to include the government and ordered an asset freeze and travel ban on those who defy peace efforts in the area racked by conflict.