Home | News    Saturday 6 November 2004

Darfur aid groups fear fresh violence, move staff

By Finbarr O’Reilly

EL FASHER, Sudan, Nov 5 (Reuters) - Aid agencies fearing an upsurge of fighting in Sudan’s troubled Darfur region have suspended operations and evacuated staff from the volatile Jebel Marra area in West Darfur state, U.N. officials said on Friday.

An African Union soldier patrols near the Abu Shouk camp for displaced Sudanese near al Fasher in north Darfur province Wednesday Nov. 3, 2004.(AP).

Tensions have steadily escalated in the arid west of Africa’s largest country since African rebels took 18 Arab civilians hostage from a bus and ambushed a convoy transporting senior government officials through the region last month.

There were unconfirmed reports that the hostages may have been released on Friday after several thousand Arab militiamen, known as Janjaweed, threatened an offensive against the rebels, the United Nations said.

Lawlessness and insecurity have now forced aid groups working in the mountainous Jebel Marra region to evacuate staff from an area where 160,000 refugees rely on food handouts.

"We have pulled out all our staff from Jebel Marra and airlifted out another 88 NGO (non-governmental organisation) staff," said Barry Came, the spokesman for the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in Sudan.

"Any NGOs still there only have a skeleton staff or are flying in each morning and leaving again at night," he told Reuters by phone from Khartoum, adding that the situation for the homeless would be grave without food distribution.

Jan Pronk, the U.N. envoy for Darfur, said on Thursday that Darfur could fall into anarchy unless the 15-nation U.N. Security Council took bold action. He also said the African Union needed to send more troops to the area than planned.

But the African Union (AU) said in Addis Ababa on Friday it lacked funds to expand its peace force and that even its existing peace monitoring operation was short of money.

MORE FUNDS NEEDED

"The AU has no problem in sending more troops," AU spokesman Assane Ba told Reuters. "But it has made it clear to the donors and international organisations that it requires massive financial and logistical assistance from those quarters who are calling for deployment of more than the envisaged 3,000 troops."

Under existing plans, the AU force will consist of 3,320 personnel, including 2,341 troops and up to 815 civilian police to monitor a shaky ceasefire.

The first U.S. shipment of food aid for refugees who have fled Darfur into neighbouring Chad arrived in Libya on Friday, Libyan officials said.

"A U.S. ship carrying 6,540 tonnes of food, including 2,000 tonnes of sorghum and 2,000 tonnes of corn flour, just docked at Benghazi port," said a senior government official at the port.

"The U.S. food relief will be enough to feed 200,000 refugees in eastern Chad for two months," he said.

Conflict erupted in Darfur in early 2003 when rebels launched a revolt against Sudan’s government, accusing it of neglect and unjust treatment.

The Janjaweed, who rebels say have government backing, responded by attacking villages and embarking on a wave of looting, raping and killing that drove more than 1.5 million people from their homes. Khartoum denies backing the Janjaweed.

There are no reliable estimates of how many have been killed in the violence, which the United States has called genocide. The United Nations says 70,000 people have died from disease and malnutrition since March, a figure disputed by Khartoum.

Mediators at slow-moving peace talks in the Nigerian capital Abuja, which resumed on Friday, were hopeful a security deal could be struck to end the conflict.

Khartoum has refused to sign the deal, which calls for a military no-fly zone over Darfur and the disarmament of the pro-Khartoum Arab militias. It does not contain Khartoum’s demand that rebels move their forces into barracks, but asks rebels to provide information on their forces’ whereabouts.

(Additional reporting by Tsegaye Tadesse in Addis Ababa and Dino Mahtani in Abuja)