NEW YORK (AP) – Thousands of people rallied in Central Park on Sunday to protest violence in the Darfur region of Sudan, whose president has rejected the deployment of U.N. peacekeeping troops.

“People have to stand with the oppressed against their oppressors and urge their leaders to extend any political leverage or capital that they have over the government of Sudan,” said Omer Ismail, who is with the Washington-based Darfur Peace and Development humanitarian aid organization.

At least 200,000 people have been killed in Darfur and more than 2 million have fled their homes since 2003, when ethnic African tribes revolted against the Arab-led government. The government is accused of unleashing brutal Arab militiamen known as janjaweed in the remote western province.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir again rejected U.N. peacekeepers during a meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Saturday.

Annan had urged Sudan in an editorial distributed Saturday to accept the U.N. Security Council’s decision to replace the largely ineffective African Union peacekeeping force with better-equipped U.N. troops.

A crowd estimated by police at 20,000 heard speeches about Darfur interspersed with musical performances on Sunday. Organizers said more than 30,000 attended.

U.S. Rep Chris Smith, R-N.J., said the people of Darfur have “had atrocities imposed upon them that no human being would have to face.”

He added that China, which has major oil interests in Sudan, should “put its economic interests in Sudan aside and say enough is enough.”

Former Canadian justice minister Irwin Cotler likened the violence in Darfur to the Holocaust.

“This genocide was preventable, and we did not act,” he said. “Just as we are not acting today in Darfur. Let us resolve that we will never again be indifferent to evil. We will speak and act.”

Earlier Sunday, demonstrators carrying signs bearing the names of fallen American service members lined Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue in a visual reminder of the toll coming from the war in Iraq.

“I feel strongly that this administration is moving in the wrong direction, and the best way we can honor the troops is to end the war as soon as we can,” said Eileen Baral, of Port Washington, on Long Island.

According to an Associated Press count, at least 2,681 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003.

Rosalyn Baxandall, a professor of American history at the State University of New York at Old Westbury, said that as the war drags on Americans become less aware of it.

“People don’t know,” she said. “Students say, ‘The war is still on?’ It’s not in people’s consciousness.”

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