Fears mount of new humanitarian crisis in Darfur

Fears were mounting on Friday of a new humanitarian disaster in Darfur after Sudan ordered the expulsion of aid agencies, with the United Nations warning that thousands of lives were at risk.

The grim assessment came as Sudan said it would not alter its policies in the wake of the International Criminal Court (ICC) decision to seek the arrest of President Omar al-Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

”If the government does not reconsider its position, with the departure of the NGOs 1,1-million people will be without food, 1,5-million people will be without health care and more than one million without drinking water,” said Elisabeth Byrs, spokesperson for the UN humanitarian coordinator’s office.

Al-Bashir is due to travel to Darfur on Sunday, a trip seen as a deliberate show of defiance to the ICC, which accuses him of orchestrating a campaign of extermination, rape, forcible displacement, torture and and pillaging over the six-year conflict in Darfur.

”The ICC will not change anything in the government’s plans and programmes,” al-Bashir told a meeting of top politicians late on Thursday.

”The government will press ahead with all steps for peace … and will conduct free and fair elections.”

Sudan reacted to the warrant by ordering the expulsion of 13 international aid agencies it accuses of collaborating with the ICC.

The United Nations, the United States and the European Union have all issued urgent calls for the decision to be revoked.

Many in Darfur live in already miserable conditions, often without access to water or electricity, in one of the remotest areas of the planet.

Rupert Colville, a spokesperson for the High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, said in Geneva that Sudan’s decision to expel the NGOs ”could threaten the lives of thousands of people”.

He indicated that the commissioner’s office would be examining whether the deprivation of aid in a conflict area might constitute violations of international law or war crimes.

”To knowingly and deliberately deprive such a huge group of civilians of means to survive is a deplorable act,” said Colville.

”Humanitarian assistance has nothing to do with the ICC proceedings. To punish civilians because of a decision by the ICC is a grievous dereliction of the government’s duty to protect its own people.”

The UN says that 300 000 people have been killed and 2,7-million made homeless by the conflict which erupted in February 2003, when ethnic minority rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated regime for a greater share of resources and power, triggering a scorched earth campaign by Sudanese forces and allied militias known as Janjaweed.

The warrant against al-Bashir — the ICC’s first against a sitting president — has deeply divided the international community.

The US, which has said genocide was being committed in Darfur, is leading calls for al-Bashir to be brought before international justice but Sudan’s allies including Africa, the Arab world and China want the warrant suspended.

The African Union said after an emergency meeting in Addis Ababa it will send a delegation to the UN to try to halt the warrant ”to give a chance for peace in Sudan”.

It was not immediately clear how many of the expelled aid agencies were still operating or whether all foreign staff had left, but several reported that the government had seized their belongings.

”We have appealed, and are still hoping that the government may change its mind,” Oxfam spokesperson Alun McDonald said, adding however that it has pulled international staff back to Khartoum from east Sudan and Darfur.

In the capital, al-Bashir supporters staged demonstrations outside the offices of the UN Development Programme and the European Union but no incidents were reported.

The speakers of Parliament in US foes Iran and Syria as well as a senior Hamas official also arrived in Khartoum in a show of solidarity for al-Bashir.

Despite the warrant, Sudanese officials say al-Bashir will fly to the Qatari capital Doha to attend an Arab League summmit at the end of the month.

The ICC has called on all 108 countries party to the Rome Statute that created the court to cooperate with the warrant, but Qatar is not a signatory.

Khartoum and the Justice and Equality movement, the most active Darfur rebel group, signed a confidence-building pact in Doha last month designed to lay the groundwork for broader peace talks. — Sapa-AFP

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