He was planning to travel to the Darfur province in western Sudan on Wednesday to visit some of the camps serving as temporary shelters for civilians displaced by a vicious ethnic struggle that began 16 months ago.
An estimated 1 million black Africans have been displaced during the conflict with Arab militias allegedly backed by the Sudanese government. Satellite photos reveal the razing of hundreds of villages.
The United States says between 10,000 and 30,000 Sudanese have been killed in fighting between the Arab militias and the black African population. The government denies it is supporting the militias.
A U.N. human rights investigator said Tuesday she saw "strong indications of crimes against humanity" during a 13-day visit this month to western Sudan and called for the international community to investigate.
Asma Jahangir told reporters at the United Nations that she found "absolutely clear indications" that Arab militias were being protected by the Sudanese government. She said the number of black Africans killed by Arab militias is "bound to be staggering."
Accompanying Powell for the three-hour visit were Sudanese officials who thus far have had a far different take than he does on how serious the situation is.
Also, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan flew to Sudan Wednesday for a firsthand look and was joining Powell on the unusually high-powered visit. They wanted to press the Sudanese government to end the 16-month conflict that has killed up to 30,000 people, driven more than 1 million from their homes and left more than 2 million in desperate need of aid.
Annan has raised the possibility of sending in international troops if Sudan's government can't safeguard its people in the vast and desolate western region, telling reporters in Qatar on Tuesday that the international community "cannot sit idle and complain that yet again we have had mass killings."
With Powell at his side at a news conference Tuesday night, Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail acknowledged that there may be some humanitarian problems in Darfur but insisted "there is no famine, no malnutrition and no disease" in the area.
He promised to be responsive to U.S. appeals for Sudan to lift restrictions on humanitarian access to Darfur and to disarm the militias. Powell and Ismail spoke after the American visitor took his case for swift humanitarian relief directly to President Omar el-Bashir.
Powell said, "There is a need for additional security so that the humanitarian effort can go on unimpeded."
En route to Sudan, Powell told reporters, "The death rate is going to go up significantly over the next several months," regardless of how quickly outside aid can be provided. He said the situation in Darfur was moving toward genocide, "but we are not there yet."
He avoided confrontational rhetoric during the news conference with Sudanese officials because he believes Sudanese cooperation offers the best hope for a solution.
Last week, Annan suggested that U.N. troops may have to undertake a mercy mission to Darfur. Without being specific, Powell indicated that the idea was impractical.
Annan also was here delivering the same message as Powell to Sudanese officials. The two diplomats have been in constant touch on the crisis in recent weeks.
"If that government is not able or willing to do it, the international community has to do something about it," Annan said. "It cannot sit idle and complain that yet again we have had mass killings."
Annan flies into Khartoum on Wednesday and, like Powell, will inspect the western Sudan region.
Powell is the first U.S. secretary of state to visit here in 26 years. His stop is part of a concerted administration effort to make sure that Darfur's victims are not ignored in the way that Rwanda's 800,000 dead were during the ethnic savagery there 10 years ago.
At least 15 U.S. airlifts have brought food, blankets and plastic sheeting to Darfur over the past month.
International concern has focused on the conflict in western Sahara even as Sudan's 37-year-long civil war — which may have claimed 2 million lives, according to the State Department — wound down.
The Bush administration has pressed for a resolution to that conflict between the government and non-Arab rebels in the south, and negotiations for a final ceasefire were scheduled for late June.