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Fate of U.N. rights envoy for Sudan hangs in balance

GENEVA (Reuters) - The fate of the United Nations human rights investigator for Sudan, who has reported war crimes in Darfur, hangs in the balance this week as African and Islamic countries seek to end her mandate.

Sima Samar, a former Afghan deputy prime minister, has served in the independent post of the U.N. special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Sudan since 2005.

But African and Islamic countries told the U.N. Human Rights Council on Tuesday that conditions in Darfur had improved and that Khartoum had been cooperative with recent U.N. inquiries.

They saw no need to renew both Samar’s investigative mandate and that of a separate group of seven independent experts that she leads. The larger group does not have the power to carry out fact-finding missions on the ground, deemed crucial.

Manfred Nowak, the U.N. torture investigator who is among the seven experts, said he feared that some of the support for that group’s work “might be used as a pretext to abolish a country-specific special rapporteur.”

“In situations where there are gross systematic human rights violations it is my deep conviction that country-specific special rapporteurs carry out a very important function. Sudan is one of those countries,” Nowak told a news briefing.

Philip Alston, another member of the experts’ group who is also the U.N. investigator for killings worldwide, said Samar was empowered to play a broader role than the group, whose existence should not be used as a pretext to eliminate her mandate.

The seven experts, in their latest report last week, said that Sudanese forces and their allied militia had carried out ground attacks and aerial bombardments on villages in Darfur in the past six months, killing hundreds of people.

Keeping the world’s spotlight on the Sudanese government -- which has been accused of sanctioning killings, rapes and looting in the vast Darfur region -- is widely seen as a litmus test of the 47-member Human Rights Council, set up in June 2006.

The Council, holding a week-long session, is due to vote on Friday on a series of resolutions about countries including Sudan.

The European Union on Tuesday formally proposed that the Council extend Samar’s mandate by one year, and that of the experts’ group until mid-June 2008.

Samar made no direct comment on her future role.

Editing by Stephen Weeks