The ongoing conflict in the Sudan got even more heated this week when former U.S. President Carter butted heads with Sudanese security forces that barred him from entering a town in Darfur, where he was attempting to meet with refugees from the ongoing conflict in the region.
According to media reports, the 83-year-old Carter was making his way toward a highly volatile pro-government town to meet refugees too frightened to attend a scheduled meeting at a nearby compound when he was stopped. A debate broke out between Carter and national forces.
"It was a major standoff," British tycoon Richard Branson, who was with Carter's group, told ABC News from his hotel room in Khartoum. "We began approaching the tribal leader's home and we were told that if we actually went to him the man would be taken out the next day."
"President Carter responded, telling the guard, 'I don't think you have the authority to do so. We are going to go anyway,'" said Branson.
Carter, who is in Darfur as part of an international delegation known as the Elders, was accompanied by fellow Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela's wife, Grace Machel, and Branson. The group traveled to the region earlier this week for talks with local tribal leaders in the hopes of addressing political and humanitarian issues and also helping set up democratic elections.
According to another source at the scene who asked to remain anonymous, the Elders had planned to meet long-term residents and some of the newly displaced people at an Oxfam water project Wednesday morning. According to Branson, however, none of the displaced people showed up after allegedly being warned the night before by Sudanese police to stay away or risk violence.
"Many locals feel intimidated by the national security forces who come to their homes to question them about every aspect of the visit, including who they met with, what was discussed, how long they stayed, etc," the source told ABC News. "After all, it's very hard for anyone to meet in secret here."
At one point, people were putting random notes in Branson's pocket. He told ABC News that on these pieces of paper were handwritten cries for help and reports of rape and torture by government agencies.
"They say they live under constant threat of torture, suffer horrendous living conditions and demand the disarmament of the Janjaweed," he said. "On a positive note, they did pretty much persuade both sides to allow in election monitors," he added, referring to elections planned for 2009.
Carter, Tutu and the other Elders were planning to meet President Omar Hassan al-Bashir late Wednesday to discuss what they hope will be free and fair elections. Reconstruction aid will also be a topic.
"These Elders are well into their 80s, and are working from 0700 in the morning to well past midnight," said Branson. "They are working incredibly hard."
When asked whether he was frightened during the shouting match, Branson said, "No, but I was really impressed. There were a lot of people standing on the street with machine guns, but I doubted that anyone would take on the former president of the United States."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.