Sudan expels British charity workers for 'supporting outlaws'

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The Sudanese government's dispute with the outside world intensified yesterday when Khartoum threatened to expel the directors of two British relief agencies working in Darfur.

The Sudanese government's dispute with the outside world intensified yesterday when Khartoum threatened to expel the directors of two British relief agencies working in Darfur.

The government sent letters to the Sudan directors of Save the Children UK and Oxfam International, accusing them of backing African rebels who have risen up against the Islamic government in Khartoum. The charities had been sending "signals of support to the outlaws and rebels for continuation of the war", it said.

The charities confirmed that they had received a letter giving their country directors 48 hours to leave the country. But both were also pursuing the matter with the Sudanese authorities in the hope that the decision could be reversed.

Last night, the minister for humanitarian affairs, Mohamed Yousif Abdalla, agreed to a temporary reprieve. But he warned that the organisations were still on notice, because "the government of Sudan has made it clear that they have to work on the basis of humanitarian grounds and not to take sides."

Oxfam has more than 500 relief workers in northern Sudan, including in Darfur, where they are providing much-needed supplies to more than a million victims of ethnic cleansing who have fled their homes under attack from Arab militias allied to the government. Save the Children has 70 people in Darfur, a region the size of France. The government complained that Save the Children had breached Sudanese law by issuing a press release saying a government plane had dropped a bomb close to one of its feeding centres last week in Tawila, north Darfur, without waiting for confirmation from African Union ceasefire monitors.

In a statement on 22 November, Save the Children accused both sides of "utter disregard" for the ceasefire, saying innocent people were suffering "at the hands of the rebels and their own government".

The government accused Oxfam of getting involved in Sudanese politics by criticising the "weakness" of a resolution from the UN Security Council, which met in special session in Nairobi this month. The Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs said: "Rejecting the resolutions of the UN Security Council, which calls for peace realisation in Sudan, simply means that organisation wants the continuation of war in Darfur."

Juan Mendez, a UN special adviser on the prevention of genocide, said yesterday that behind the reasons given for the expulsion orders, the government might have been angered by the relief agencies' insistence on keeping the displaced Sudanese in camps for their own protection. The government is pressing for the people to be moved out to "safe areas".

"All the humanitarian agencies have been very strong about saying that there are no conditions for a safe return," Mr Mendez said. "It could be that they blame the international presence for prolonging the humanitarian crisis."

But the killings have continued despite the threat of UN sanctions, which has been gradually watered down amid support for the government from Arab states, Russia and China.

The UN World Food Programme announced last week that renewed fighting in the north of Darfur had prompted it to close down operations in the region. The latest violence has centred on Tawila, where skirmishes broke out on 18 and 19 November. The government launched air attacks, dropping at least four bombs, including the one that landed 50 metres away from the Save the Children feeding unit. The rebels withdrew from the town on Tuesday, but tensions are still high.