Sudan sinks deeper into crisis

Fears of a severe humanitarian crisis in Sudan mount after Bashir's decision to expel 13 international aid groups could leave more than a million people without food.

A Sudanese woman carries her son on her back at al-Salam camp for internally displaced persons near Nyala in South Darfur.
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Fears of a severe humanitarian crisis in Sudan are mounting after UN agencies yesterday warned that President Omar al Bashir's decision to expel 13 international aid organisations could leave more than a million people without food and medical assistance, and risk thousands of lives. The non-governmental groups, which delivered more than half the aid for war-torn Darfur, were expelled after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an international arrest warrant for Mr Bashir, charging him with war crimes and crimes against humanity stemming from the conflict in the region. Mr Bashir accused the aid agencies, including Médecins Sans Frontières, Save the Children, Oxfam and CARE, of conspiring with the ICC.

Their departure would leave more than 1.1 million people without food, 1.5m without health care and more than a million without drinking water, the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs said yesterday. Amnesty International warned that 2.2m people are at risk of starvation or disease. Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, the EU and the US have all issued statements urging Mr Bashir immediately to reverse the move, to avoid a deepening humanitarian disaster. The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said it was looking into whether depriving civilians of aid may be a breach of international law and a further war crime.

"To knowingly and deliberately deprive such a huge group of civilians of the means to survive is a deplorable act. Humanitarian assistance has nothing to do with the ICC proceedings," Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the high commissioner, said yesterday. The decision "could threaten the lives of thousands of people", he said. "To punish civilians because of a decision of the ICC is a grievous dereliction of the government's duty to protect its own people."

A statement from the secretary general's office warned that the action could cause "irrevocable damage" to aid operations. "The operations of these agencies are key to maintaining a lifeline to 4.7 million Sudanese people who receive aid in Darfur," it said. "The secretary-general stresses that these organisations provide humanitarian assistance to those who need it in a neutral and impartial manner." Gordon Guguid, a spokesman for the US state department, said the eviction order could create a humanitarian crisis of "staggering proportions" and that the US was doing what it could to persuade Sudan to reconsider its decision.

It is not clear how many of the aid organisations are still operating, but some have reported that their property has been seized. "The confiscation of equipment, money and other materials is unacceptable and must end immediately," the UN said. The charges against Mr Bashir are linked to his alleged role in the Darfur conflict that has left 2.7m homeless and 300,000 dead, mostly through disease and starvation, according to the UN.

Khartoum claims that 10,000 died in the conflict. "The population of Darfur, which has suffered the brunt of this conflict for the past six years, is now being punished by its own government in response to the arrest warrant," Tawanda Hondora, the deputy director of Amnesty International's Africa programme, said. Mr Bashir, who has been in power for more than 15 years, is accused being "criminally responsible" for directing attacks on three tribes in Darfur as the predominantly Arab government tried to quash a rebel uprising after African tribes complained of marginalisation.

It is the first time the ICC has ordered the arrest of a sitting head of state. Despite the charges levelled at him, Mr Bashir yesterday said he would continue to pursue a peaceful resolution in Darfur. He also plans a defiant visit to Doha for the Arab League summit later this month. The ICC warrant to pursue charges has split the international community, with Arab, African and Chinese leaders calling for a reversal of the decision.

Abdel Wahed Mohamed Ahmed al Nur, the founder of the rebel Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), said the departure of the aid workers was a disaster for the people of Darfur. But if there had been no warrant, attacks by government troops and proxy militias would be an even graver danger. With additional reporting by agencies