Aid groups have suspended operations in Darfur and may pull out of the Sudanese province after a French relief worker was raped, another sexually assaulted and an Oxfam employee was severely beaten at the world's largest refugee camp.
Details of the attack, which took place on 18 December at Gereida refugee camp, South Darfur, are only beginning to emerge. It marks the first time a Western aid worker has been the target of rape - a weapon of war in Darfur, where 3.5 million people depend on aid.
"We have suspended our operations and we may not go back," said Thomas Gonnet, the director of operations for Action Contre La Faim (ACF), whose colleague was raped and another was molested.
"The attack lasted about half an hour and was well planned and violent. Up to 40 armed men broke into the compound. Apart from the rape, our team was forced at gunpoint to lie on the floor. One person was rifle-butted, many shots were fired and there was a mock execution," he said.
Thirteen United Nations agencies said last week in a statement that in the face of growing danger, they had been reduced to "holding the line" in Darfur, adding that recent deadly cholera outbreaks reflected deteriorating hygiene conditions in understaffed camps.
Since 2003, fighting in Darfur has caused the deaths of at least 200,000 people and displaced 2.5 million, according to the UN. Since last year, the war between rebels and government forces and militias has worsened as armed groups have fragmented. Efforts to deploy UN peacekeepers or beef up the 7,800-strong African Union force in Darfur have been stalled by Omar al-Bashir, Sudan's President.
In the capital, Khartoum, Oxfam's spokesman, Alun McDonald, said two male expat workers and seven Sudanese employees were at the Oxfam compound, adjacent to the ACF buildings, when the attack took place at night. "They knew we had six Toyota Landcruisers but only five of them were at the compound. They beat our Sudanese guard to try to find out where the sixth one was."
Oxfam says that £150,000 of equipment was taken in the attack. ACF lost seven vehicles, as well as radios, satellite and mobile phones, cameras and computers.
Mr Gonnet said the four expats who were at Gereida at the time of the attack, including the two women who were sexually assaulted, had been flown back to France. ACF's remaining 19 local staff had been redeployed to Nyala. Oxfam's seven local staff are also now in Nyala.
A further 39 aid workers, including several from the British group Merlin, have been evacuated, leaving the 130,000 people in Gereida dependent on the Red Cross. One evacuated relief worker said : "The security risks are at a high point. We simply cannot work if our lives are at risk."
Gereida is controlled by the majority faction of the rebel Sudanese Liberation Army commanded by Minni Minnawi. Since he signed a peace agreement with the government last year, his movement has become fragmented.
Mr Gonnet said ACF had received an apology from Mr Minnawi but that he may no longer be in control of those who carried out the attack. He added that the ACF had not yet decided whether to report the attack to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which is investigating war crimes in Darfur.Reuse content