for National Geographic News
United States government death toll estimates for the war-torn Darfur region of Sudan in Africa underestimate the count by hundreds of thousands of lost lives, according to a new study.
Some experts estimate that the conflict between government-sponsored militias and rebel groups, which began in February 2003, has killed as many as 500,000 people so far (watch related video about the factors fueling the conflict).
But in 2005 officials at the U.S. Department of State gave a vastly lower threshold of 63,000 to 146,000 dead.
The low figures produced "patterns of underestimation that prevailed in the press," said John Hagan, study co-author and sociology professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.
"After that announcement, much of the media reporting started to talk in the tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands, or they didn't talk about deaths at all and talked exclusively about displacement," he said. "It had the effect of diminishing the sense of urgency."
(See related photos of life in Sudanese refugee camps.)
The latest report, to be published in tomorrow's issue of the journal Science, challenges official U.S. estimates.
Hagan and co-author Alberto Palloni of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, estimate that the conflict has caused anywhere from 170,000 to 255,000 deaths, and they say the number could be much higher.
"Analysis of factors confounding previous estimates leads to the conclusion that hundreds of thousand of people have died as a result of the conflict in Darfur," Hagan and Palloni write in their study.
Many death toll estimates for Darfur have been hindered by the difficulties of taking surveys in Sudan's western region (map of Sudan).
Data-gathering agencies must therefore make problematic assumptions, the authors write in their study.
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