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* UN envoy says serious escalation in killings
* Council urges prompt preparation for S.Sudan referendum
By Patrick Worsnip
UNITED NATIONS, June 14 (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council expressed grave concern on Monday over a spike in violence in Sudan's western Darfur region, which a U.N. envoy said was seriously hindering protection and aid for civilians.
The envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, told the council 447 people had died in May alone -- a lower figure than given last week by U.N. officials, but still what he called a "serious escalation" in fighting between Sudan's government and Darfur rebels.
Gambari, head of the U.N./African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur, or UNAMID, said military clashes were likely to "continue for some time unless urgent efforts at ensuring a ceasefire are made by the international community."
The Darfur conflict began in 2003 when mostly non-Arab rebel factions took up arms against Sudan's government, accusing it of neglecting the region's development. Khartoum mobilized mostly Arab militias to crush the uprising.
Violence has increased since one of the main rebel groups, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), announced in early May it was freezing its participation in peace talks.
The upsurge had "created very serious hindrances to the implementation of UNAMID's protection mandate, as well as to the provision of humanitarian assistance to those in dire need," Gambari said.
In a statement adopted after briefings from four U.N. and AU envoys to Sudan, the 15-nation Security Council expressed "grave concern about the upsurge of violence in Darfur and the high number of civilian casualties."
The statement, read to media by council president Claude Heller of Mexico, called for full access for UNAMID and aid groups throughout Darfur and urged all rebel groups to take part in peace talks being held in Qatar's capital Doha.
Although the council did not say who was to blame for the violence, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said Washington was "deeply disturbed" by what she called a recent large-scale Sudanese army offensive against JEM.
"The government of Sudan continues to conduct aerial bombardments in Darfur," she said. "These actions kill and maim civilians and result in additional displacement of innocent Darfuris."
The council also called for "timely preparations" for a referendum next January in Sudan's oil-producing south on whether the currently semi-autonomous region should become fully independent, after several speakers said time was short.
U.N. envoy to Sudan Haile Menkerios said "widespread concerns exist about the tight timeframe for the preparation and conduct" of the poll. "There is no more time to lose," he added, saying the deadline was "possible, albeit challenging."
British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, whose delegation drafted the council statement, said a "much greater sense of urgency" was need to prepare for the referendum.
Sudanese Ambassador Abdalmahmoud Abdalhaleem, speaking to reporters, charged that the United States and other countries were "sending signals determining the outcome of the referendum" and called on them to stop. He apparently meant they were implying the South Sudanese would back independence.
Abdalhaleem also attacked the United States, France and Austria for raising in the council the issue of an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court for Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for alleged crimes in Darfur.
French Ambassador Gerard Araud said the council "cannot remain silent" over a report by the ICC last month that Khartoum was not cooperating with the court.
Chief ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo urged the council last Friday to support his crusade to apprehend two Sudanese men indicted by the court three years ago.
But Heller told reporters "there is not an initiative of any delegation to present a concrete action for the time being." (Editing by Eric Walsh)