Home | News    Tuesday 20 April 2004

UN says Sudan crisis worse than believed; aid mission delayed

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By Marc Carnegie

UNITED NATIONS, April 20 (AFP) — Sudan has delayed a crucial UN aid mission to the troubled Darfur region until next week, UN officials said, as new figures showed the humanitarian crisis was much worse than previously thought.

They said one million people have fled their homes and are displaced in Darfur, well above earlier estimates of 700,000, in what the United Nations says is now the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world.

A UN mission to begin planning a massive relief effort has been put off twice and will now take place next week, when UN emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland will not be available to go because of other commitments.

"If the government does their bit and we do our bit, we can still save lives," Egeland told AFP, refusing to be drawn into criticism of Khartoum over the postponement. "My (personal presence) is not so important in this."

But other UN officials privately expressed frustration at the delay and suggested it was in retaliation after Egeland accused the government of waging a "scorched earth" policy of ethnic cleansing against non-Arabs.

Sudan has denied arming the Arab militias that have looted and burned African villages, which Egeland said Monday has left one million people displaced in addition to 100,000 who have fled to neighbouring Chad.

Around 10,000 people are also believed to have died in more than a year of fighting, which started with a rebel revolt against the government amid allegations it had backed the militias and was neglecting the Darfur region.

"All alarm bells are sounding. This is a major humanitarian crisis coming up," he said. "It’s a race against the clock now."

Food and water are scarce, and there are fears that the situation will worsen with the arrival of the rainy season in the coming weeks.

Access to the region has been limited but a fragile new ceasefire has allowed a fuller picture of the catastrophe.

In addition to the revised number of displaced people, a plea for 115 million dollars in emergency funds to cope with the crisis also needs to be increased, Egeland said.

"The number-one humanitarian drama in the world right now is not in Iraq, and not in the Palestinian territories. It is in Darfur," he said. "What we are now seeing is a moment of truth."

Next week’s visit will attempt to map out a strategy for the relief effort as much of the region remains a no-go area for UN staff. Officials last week said they were denied access to investigate human rights abuses.

Human Rights Watch on Wednesday said that the militias in Darfur have raped and abducted civilians in what it called "a pattern of abuses amounting to crimes against humanity."

Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Ismail on Monday pledged the government would disarm the militias but rejected calls for outside mediation.

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