Two high-ranking United Nations officials suggested on Tuesday that the death toll in the five-year conflict in Darfur has risen to 300,000 people.

A 2006 World Health Organization estimate placed the number of people who have perished in the Sudanese region from the combined effects of the conflict — including hunger, disease and violence — at around 200,000.

But John Holmes, the UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, and Rodolphe Adada, the joint representative for the UN and African Union in Darfur, told the UN Security Council in New York City on Tuesday that the situation is getting worse.

"A study in 2006 suggested that 200,000 had lost their lives from the combined effects of the conflict. That figure must be much higher now, perhaps half as much again," Holmes said.

He added the region is still characterized by insecurity, lawlessness and impunity, with widespread human rights abuses.

"These numbers are not deaths from violence," Holmes said. "They are all the deaths, all the extra deaths, which come from the existence of a conflict — disease, malnutrition, the reduced lifespan that that brings to people."

Holmes and Adada also said thousands of additional people have been uprooted from their homes, upping earlier estimates of 2.5 million displaced people.

Abdalmahmoud Abdalhaleem, Sudan's ambassador to the UN, disputed the estimate. He said Sudan placed the death toll at only 10,000 people killed.

"In our own calculations, the number does not exceed 10,000," Abdalhaleem said. "Of course, here we are not including those who died because of malnutrition and starvation, because in Darfur there is no epidemics, no starvations, so that is why any additional number would be just very minimal."

Full deployment could be delayed to 2009 

Holmes later told reporters he was not trying to produce an exact figure, but only a "reasonable extrapolation" from the 2006 estimate.

Fighting has raged since 2003, when black African tribesmen took up arms, complaining of decades of neglect and discrimination by the Arab-dominated Sudanese government in Khartoum.

The government has been accused of unleashing a militia of Arab nomads known as the janjaweed to commit atrocities against Darfur's black African communities.

A joint African Union-United Nations peacekeeping force was launched in January to try to stem the violence in Darfur. But the group so far only has about 9,000 troops and police on the ground out of the 26,000 that have been authorized.

On Tuesday, Adada said it was "very unlikely" the force would reach full-operating capability before next year.

"I am obliged to report that the obstacles they surmount and the risks they run have not reduced over the last three months," he told the Security Council.

Western officials have blamed the Sudanese government for delaying the rollout of the force, an accusation Khartoum denies.

With files from the Canadian Press