New Darfur crisis looms as Bashir digs in on aid

Workers fear catastrophe without help of international agencies during rain season
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The Independent Online

Delivering a blow to hopes that he would soon reverse the expulsion of humanitarian aid agencies from Darfur, the Sudanese President Omar al Bashir has renewed his attack on the charities, accusing them of seeking to bring about a regime change.

Mr Bashir claimed that the 2.2 million people depending on relief in the western Sudanese region were suffering no extra hardship as a result of his decision because Sudan itself was capable of filling the vacuum.

Mr Bashir made the claim to foreign journalists at his presidential palace in Khartoum. It was met with disbelief and dismay from Sudanese aid workers who said that the rainy season which starts next month would be catastrophic without the resources of the big international agencies to distribute food aid.

The relief effort would be manageable until the end of May, they said, but the rains and Mr Bashir's refusal to bow to international pressure would condemn millions of refugees to hunger and sickness.

"It is simply not true that the national NGOs [non-government organisations] can fill the gap in distributing aid" one relief worker in Sudan told The Independent. "All the indications are that in the coming three months conditions will be appalling. The camps will need air drops but the local groups do not have the capacity. There are no qualified aid organisations on the ground to fill the void."

Some of the President's closest advisers are also understood to believe that the expulsion's effects will be devastating and fear this will intensify Sudan's international isolation.

Sudanese diplomats raised hopes this month of a compromise which could allow the agencies to return under new names and logos. But hardliners in the regime are urging the President to stick to his decision because they believe at least one of the charities may be helping prepare witnesses to give evidence against him if he is brought to trial in The Hague.

Mr Bashir is the only serving head of state to have been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged war crimes.

Either way, Mr Bashir, who denies the charges against him, appears deaf to the warnings that his vendetta against the charities will add to the toll of human suffering in Darfur. "We are sure there will never be any shortages," he said. "There will never be any gaps in the services the internally displaced people need."

The 65-year-old former army chief alleged that the aid organisations had helped whip up anti-government feeling within the camps.

Mr Bashir, who seized power in a 1989 coup, said the agencies had been spying for the ICC and abusing their access as aid-givers: "Some of the NGOs played an adverse role. They incited the internally displaced people against the central government. The agencies we decided to expel played a negative role outside of their mandate. That's why we expelled them." Thirteen charities including Médecins Sans Frontières, Oxfam UK and Save the Children were ordered out of Sudan on 5 March, barely 24 hours after the ICC issued a warrant for the President's arrest for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, including murder, rape and torture.

The United Nations forecast that the expulsions would put more than one million people at risk of starvation. Mr Bashir said there was no evidence that Darfur was experiencing any additional hardship in the absence of the charities: "The government has committed itself to filling any gap whether inside the [refugee] camps or elsewhere," he said. Arab countries and friendly Islamic states "with massive capabilities" were now filling the void.