EL FASHER, Sudan -- The U.N. Security Council got a firsthand look Thursday at the worsening conflict in Darfur, which has killed up to 300,000 people and forced 2.5 million to flee their homes.
Facing one of the world's worst humanitarian crises, the council delegation met with officials from the U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force that has struggled to get up to its full strength of 26,000 troops since its January launch.
The force -- key to helping protect civilians in the many camps of displaced Darfurians -- now stands at 9,000 troops.
The delegation also toured Zamzam camp near El Fasher, housing tens of thousands of Darfurians displaced by the violence.
"I come away feeling very frustrated," said Dumisani Kumalo, South Africa's ambassador to the U.N. He said there were complaints in the delegation that not enough time was allotted in the camp. "It's like we're tourists."
Kumalo's co-leader on the delegation, Britain's U.N. ambassador John Sawers, was the only one to take a walk outside the barbed wire.
Asked how they could come all the way from New York and not go see how displaced Darfurians live, Kumalo was defensive. He said the council talked to representatives of the displaced, including women, at a closed meeting in the compound.
"We listened to women about what life is like in those camps; that was important," Kumalo said. "We would not disrespect them and leave them and say, 'Let's go look in your houses.'"
Kumalo told reporters that while there was an impression at the U.N. headquarters that the Sudanese government was responsible for many of the problems, there is also the reality that the U.N.-AU mission is "horribly underserved and underresourced."
"People in those camps were telling us, 'The U.N. must come and protect us.' With what?" Kumalo asked, blaming the international community for lack of support.
One stumbling block has been the Sudanese government's reluctance to allow non-African troops into the region.
Sawers said Sudanese presidential adviser Nafie Ali Nafie promised Wednesday that Thai and Nepalese battalions could deploy after Ethiopian and Egyptian troops reach Darfur.
The commander of the peacekeeping force, known as UNAMID, said the agreement between U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was crucial.
"We need the numbers to provide the security, to make the roads safe, to help the humanitarians do their job, even though there is no peace deal at this time," said Nigerian Gen. Martin Agwai.
Agwai said that in three or four months, he expected the force to grow to 13,000 -- with the Egyptian, Ethiopian, Thai and Nepalese troops -- and he expressed optimism the force could reach its goal of 80 percent of the full deployment by year's end.
But the mission lacks five critical capabilities to become operational -- attack helicopters, surveillance aircraft, transport helicopters, military engineers and logistical support.
The visit comes just two days after International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo alleged in a report that "the whole state apparatus" of Sudan is implicated in crimes against humanity in Darfur.
Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem Mohamed, Sudan's U.N. ambassador, called the allegations "fictitious and vicious" and harmful to the prospects of peace.
Moreno-Ocampo expanded on that report in an appearance at the U.N. in New York Thursday, saying "the entire Darfur region is a crime scene."
As the council delegation in Sudan met privately with residents of Zamzam camp, others pressed their faces against a barbed wire fence, holding out their hands in an appeal for food.
Emilia Casella of the U.N. World Food Program said food rations have been cut there "because we've been able to deliver only half as much food as we need into our warehouses in Darfur due to banditry against truckers."
The Security Council heard similarly grim reports in late April, when U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes and the U.N.-AU force's envoy, Rodolphe Adada, said suffering in the western Sudanese region is worsening as fighting escalates, with tens of thousands more people uprooted from their homes.
Mohamed disagreed. "We don't think there is any humanitarian crisis in Darfur," he said. The crisis is in "the imagination" of Holmes, he said in El Fasher, where he was accompanying the delegation.
The U.N. and AU have tried for months to open new peace talks between Sudan and rebel groups following the failure of a 2005 agreement to stem violence. But most rebel chiefs are boycotting the negotiations.
During an address to the council delegation in Sudan, al-Bashir stressed that his government was determined to find a political solution to Darfur.
"It is only through peaceful means and not military options that a durable solution may be found," he said in Arabic.
But he also accused the international community of "exploiting" the Darfur crisis.
"This vicious campaign has targeted the policies and positions of my country. It has strived to exaggerate and distort facts," he said.
The U.N.'s envoy to Darfur, who said he is meeting with rebel movements individually to try to push the talks forward, complained of the slow pace of progress while talking to reporters in Geneva on Thursday.
"We go through disappointments and frustration to a degree that I haven't seen myself in my 25 years or so of mediation," Jan Eliasson said.
But he added: "We meet the people who need peace. That's what keeps you going."
Associated Press writers Elaine Engeler in Geneva and John Heilprin at the United Nations contributed to this report.