NEW YORK (Reuters) - Groups including the United Nations, Harvard University, Google Inc and an organization co-founded by actor George Clooney are launching a project using satellites to "watch" Sudan for war crimes before a vote that could split the African country in two.
The Satellite Sentinel Project, which begins on Wednesday, is meant to provide an "early warning system" for human rights and security violations before the January 9 referendum on whether to divide Sudan into north and south.
"We want to let potential perpetrators of genocide and other war crimes know that we're watching, the world is watching," Clooney said in a statement.
The satellite project received funding for six months from Not On Our Watch, an organization co-founded by Clooney and his Hollywood friends, actors Don Cheadle, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, David Pressman and producer Jerry Weintraub.
The group has been active in raising money to help the many displaced people in the Darfur region of western Sudan, which has been ravaged by war and genocide.
Clooney told Time magazine in an article posted on its website that he came up with the idea three months ago when he was in Sudan meeting refugees from its last civil war. He called it "the anti-genocide paparazzi," referring to photographers who follow celebrities taking their pictures.
Under the project, commercial satellites over northern and southern Sudan will photograph any burned and bombed villages, mass movements of people, or other evidence of violence.
The United Nations' UNOSAT program will collect and analyze the images, Harvard's Humanitarian Initiative will provide research, more analysis and corroboration from field reports from the anti-genocide Enough Project,
Google and Trellon Llc, an Internet development firm, designed a Web platform for public access to information with the goal of pressuring Sudanese officials and other groups.
People in Sudan's oil-rich south are widely expected to vote to split away and form a new country in the referendum that was part of a 2005 peace deal ending civil war between north and south.
Ahead of the referendum, violence has already flared. Last week, members of the opposition Umma Party said they were beaten and tear-gassed by Sudanese police when they left a meeting to attend a mosque for Friday prayers.
On December 24, Vice President Joe Biden phoned Sudanese Second Vice President Ali Osman Mohmed Taha to express Washington's concern about violence leading up to the vote.
Reporting by Bob Tourtellotte in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Lou Charbonneau in New York; Editing by Chris Wilson