/ 28 March 2011

Aid agency may be forced to shut Darfur programme

Catholic Relief Services fears it will have to shut its West Darfur food programme at the end of the month unless Khartoum lifts a ban on its operations, depriving about 400 000 people of food rations, an aid official said.

Sudan suspended the group’s activities in late January and accused it of distributing Bibles in the Muslim region, in the latest in a series of restrictions on foreign aid groups operating in conflict-ridden Darfur.

The agency has denied distributing Bibles or Christian materials. The group’s country director, Darren Hercyk, said it was initially asked to leave the area in January due to security concerns. Since then, it has moved foreign staff to Khartoum and kept its more than 300 local staff in Darfur on standby.

“We’ve always felt we were another week away from being able to restart,” Hercyk told Reuters.

“It’s at the point where if we’re not going to be able to do that, we’re going to have to shut the programme.”

Sudan expelled 13 of the largest foreign aid groups working in Darfur in 2009 after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for war crimes and genocide in the region.

Catholic Relief Services was among the humanitarian agencies that expanded its relief efforts in the area to fill the aid gap at the time. It is now the biggest aid agency distributing food in West Darfur, posing questions over who could step in to take over its work, it said.

“There’s the implication that some of this could lead to malnutrition and food insecurity,” said Hercyk. “And there’s the question of trying to replace CRS in the area.”

The group still hopes the government will allow it to resume operations before it shuts down in the next four days, he said. It says it will have to shut down other programmes on agriculture, water and education, among others, if it is not given permission to return.

Last month, Sudan expelled the French agency Médecins du Monde, accusing it of spying and helping rebels. The group was one of the few working in the rebel stronghold of Jabel Marra.

Eight years of conflict between mostly non-Arab rebels and government troops backed by largely Arab militias in Darfur has led to one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. The United Nations estimates some 300 000 people have died in the conflict. Khartoum puts the death toll at 10 000.

Violence has fallen from levels seen in 2003 and 2004 but fighting in Darfur has intensified again in recent months, displacing more than 70 000 people. – Reuters