Attacks force 71 aid staff to evacuate Darfur town

KHARTOUM (Reuters) — Attacks on Darfur aid workers’ compounds in Gereida town have forced the evacuation of 71 staff and severely restricted humanitarian aid reaching the region’s largest population of war victims, officials said on Wednesday.

Around 20 armed men launched a coordinated attack in the South Darfur town on Monday night, seizing a dozen vehicles and communications equipment and almost paralysing aid operations.

It was the biggest single attack on the Darfur aid operation, the world’s largest, since it began helping three million victims of the conflict in remote western Sudan in early 2004.

“It’s massive and hugely destructive and has severely disrupted aid operations,” said Alun McDonald, spokesman for the British aid organisation Oxfam, which had five vehicles stolen and whose compound was fired on during the attack. The 71 aid workers were evacuated on Tuesday.

It was not clear who carried out the attacks in Gereida, its population swollen by 130,000 refugees from nearby villages. But the well-organised attackers knew how many vehicles the aid groups had and threatened and harassed staff.

The Gereida area is controlled by the one rebel faction that signed a May peace deal with the government.

UN humanitarian coordinator Manuel Aranda Da Silva said in a statement: “How can we be expected to carry out humanitarian work without vehicles to get to camps, phones to communicate and the constant threat to their own physical safety?” The Darfur conflict began when mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms in 2003, accusing Khartoum of marginalising the arid region. Militias, which the international community says the government mobilised to quell the revolt, are accused of pillage and murder.

Washington has called the conflict genocide, but Sudan denies this, saying it is fighting a guerrilla insurgency. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is investigating alleged war crimes in the region, where experts estimate 200,000 have been killed, a figure Khartoum disputes.

More than 400 aid staff have been evacuated in Darfur so far in December because of violence that has severely disrupted aid.

“[Violence] is completely unpredictable, it’s pretty much everywhere in Darfur at the moment,” said McDonald. Oxfam provides water in Gereida. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan sent personal envoy Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah to Khartoum on Wednesday to meet with government officials and clarify UN support to a struggling African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur. Khartoum has rejected a UN force for Darfur. Critics say the government fears the troops may arrest any officials likely to be indicted by the ICC. Annan denied this. “The UN troops are not going to Darfur to arrest Sudanese leaders,” he said. “Their responsibility and mandate will be to help create a secure environment in Darfur that will allow us to protect the internally displaced [and] allow access to the needy by the humanitarian workers,” he said late Tuesday in New York.

More than a dozen aid workers, mostly Sudanese, have been killed in Darfur. In addition to physical dangers, they complain of obstruction by authorities with travel restrictions and other bureaucratic hindrances.

On Wednesday, Humanitarian Affairs Minister Kosti Manyebi told Reuters an agreement with aid agencies and the United Nations on freedom of movement to and within Darfur had been renewed for a third year.

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