Home | News    Wednesday 5 January 2005

As UN calls for cease-fire to allow polio program, rebels threaten to fight

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CAIRO, Egypt, Jan 4, 2005 (AP) — Sudanese rebels and government forces have resumed fighting in Darfur, officials said Tuesday, as the United Nations sent out a plea for a three-day ceasefire to ensure thousands of children can be immunised to prevent a polio epidemic.

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Monday’s clashes in North Darfur state and the threat of continued attacks in the war-ravaged country’s west both highlighted the vulnerability of conducting a region-wide polio vaccination program targeting children under age 5 in the midst of a raging conflict.

Jan Pronk (photo), the UN secretary-general’s representative in Sudan, said he would urge all parties to the Darfur conflict to lay down their arms before, during and after a Jan. 10-12 polio immunisation program.

"It is crucial that all troops and armed forces refrain from any activity that would hamper the smooth conduct of the vaccination campaign," Pronk said Tuesday.

The Darfur conflict began in February 2003 and has killed at least tens of thousands and displaced nearly 2 million. The United Nations cites it as one factor behind Sudan’s polio outbreak, its first since the virus was eradicated in the country in April 2001. There have been 105 reported cases in Sudan since fighting begun, marking the third highest rate in the world.

Mohammed Morsal, coordinator of the rebel Sudan Liberation Army, threatened Tuesday that rebels would step up military operations against government forces in retaliation for an alleged government attack on an SLA base near Mellit, a town about 50 kilometres (31 miles) north of the North Darfur capital of Fasher.

Morsal said government soldiers in 23 four-by-four vehicles attacked the base, but were repelled by rebels who also allegedly shot down a government helicopter, a claim which could not be immediately verified.

"Many government soldiers and rebels were killed in the attack," Morsal told The Associated Press in Egypt in a telephone interview.

Morsal said the clashes were a breach of a Nov. 9 ceasefire signed in the Nigerian capital of Abuja between rebels and government forces.

Mohammed Youssef Kebeer, the governor of North Darfur, confirmed fighting did take place in the Mellit area, but said rebels started the violence after attacking a convoy of government vehicles carrying humanitarian aid.

"We reopened the road today (Tuesday) after expelling the rebels and inflicting upon them huge losses," Kebeer said without elaborating.

African Union monitors, who are observing the ceasefire accord, have not received any reports of such an incident, according to Jean Baptiste, the African Union’s senior political officer in Sudan.

The SLA released a statement demanding government forces leave the Mellit area within 24 hours and called on the African Union to "take a strong decision over these violations."

"If things don’t go well and if the African Union doesn’t take a strong decision over this situation, we will not attend the next Joint Commission meeting and instead discuss things back in the field," Morsal said in an apparent reference to resuming military operations.

Since Nov. 9, there have been numerous attacks in violation of the Abuja accords, including the killings of several humanitarian aid workers and an attack on an African Union helicopter. But there has been relative calm in the region since Dec. 23, according to Baptiste.

The polio program is to be undertaken in coordination with the Sudanese Health Ministry and the World Health Organisation.

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