- The Washington Times - Friday, March 6, 2009

KHARTOUM, Sudan (AP) — Even before Sudan’s president expelled aid groups from Darfur following an international warrant seeking his arrest, diarrhea was spreading among newcomers at one of its largest refugee camps and people waited hours in line for water.

The picture at the Zamzam Camp grew even bleaker Thursday when no aid workers showed up, leaving residents to figure out how they would get life sustaining goods from sorghum seeds to running water and tents for the influx of new refugees.

“We are very concerned,” said Ibrahim Safi, 34, one of 75,000 residents at the camp. “After God, we only have the organizations.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Thursday that Sudan’s expulsion of 13 major aid organizations will cause “irrevocable damage” to humanitarian operations in Darfur and called on the government to urgently reconsider its decision.

Catherine Bragg, the U.N.’s deputy emergency relief coordinator, said the organizations are responsible for “at least half” of the humanitarian operations in Darfur and are vital partners for U.N. agencies in delivering food, providing health care, water, education and other services.

“With the loss of these NGOs, 1.1 million people will be without food aid, 1.1 million will be without health care, and over 1 million will be without potable water,” she said.

In his first comments since the International Criminal Court issued a warrant Wednesday charging him with war crimes in Darfur, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir defiantly accused the tribunal, the U.N. and the aid organizations of being part of a new “colonialism” that wants to destabilize his country.

Al-Bashir said the aid organizations were trying to disrupt peace efforts in Darfur, profiting from the conflict and interfering with foreign investment.

The head of the government agency that oversees Sudan’s humanitarian affairs, Hasabo Abdel Rahman, also directly accused the expelled aid groups of cooperating with the ICC and giving the court “false” testimony.

The non-governmental aid groups, which include CARE International, Oxfam GB and Mercy Corps, have denied any involvement with the ICC. But experts had warned of possible repercussions against the groups if the arrest warrant was ordered.

Eric Reeves, a Sudan expert and professor at Smith College in Massachusetts, said the decision to expel so many aid groups was “without precedent” but not surprising. Harassment of aid groups and denial of access to Darfur were common practices by the Khartoum government before the decision, he said.

But, he said, there were also risks to allowing the status quo to prevail in Darfur, where up to 300,000 people have died in the fighting, which pits ethnic African rebels against the Arab-led Khartoum government and Arab militiamen.

Sudan’s oil reserves, estimated by some to be in the range of 6.5 billion barrels, have played a central role in the conflicts that have dogged the country for decades. A large portion of the reserves are located along the disputed borders between north and south, fueling that civil war for two decades.

A 2005 comprehensive peace agreement ended that fight, but it failed to include other marginalized communities and regions in Sudan, helping fuel the conflict in Darfur.

The ICC arrest warrant further complicates an already difficult situation in the country. Analysts say that the fallout from the indictment could also spill over into implementation of the north-south peace agreement, leading to even more difficulties in the beleaguered nation.

“Should that agreement fall apart, you could have a crisis that will ultimately dwarf what has happened in Darfur,” said Jennifer Cooke, head of the Africa program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

At least 2.7 million have been forced from their homes by the fighting since 2003, with the majority of them living in refugee camps in Darfur.

Most of the expelled aid groups were told by the Sudanese government that their operating licenses were revoked after the ICC issued the warrant. Three others, including the French branch of Medicins Sans Frontieres, also known as Doctors Without Borders, said it was ordered to stop working on Thursday.

Abdel Rahman warned that more could be kicked out if the government believes they violated the law.

The groups have more than 30 different projects in Darfur, mainly involving the distribution of food staples like sorghum, primary medical care, clean water and sanitation services. The groups’ programs are not being affected in southern Sudan, a semiautonomous region with its own government.

MSF says more than 200,000 Darfurians are now without access to essential medical care because its operations have ceased in some areas of the vast, western Sudanese region. The order came at a time during a meningitis outbreak in Kalma Camp, in southern Darfur that is home to 90,000 people.

CARE International said its 650 employees in Sudan, a majority of who are Sudanese, had to stop working after Sudan revoked its license after 28 years of working in the African country. The aid group had been helping about 600,000 people in parts of Darfur with food distribution and water.

“The impact is going to be huge. … For us the main concern is what is going to happen to the people who we were providing assistance to?” said Bea Spadacini, a spokeswoman for CARE based in Kenya.

Rahman said there are 2,600 local Sudanese groups that can fill the void left by the international aid groups.

But Bragg said while the U.N. was looking into contingency plans, “it will be extremely challenging for the remaining humanitarian organizations and the government of Sudan to fill the operating gap.”

Back in Zamzam Camp, Safi said he fears all aid groups will be kicked out. His cramped camp just received more than 26,000 new residents who flooded in from the region after fighting in south Darfur, and the influx has already stretched water resources and living facilities.

“I don’t want to be repressed twice, first from al-Bashir and then the ICC. … Who is benefiting in both cases? We are the ones losing,” he said.

Associated Press writers Anna Johnson and Tarek El-tablawy in Cairo and Alexander G. Higgins in Geneva contributed to this report.

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