UN airlifts staff out of Darfur town as Janjaweed move in

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The Independent Online

The United Nations has begun a mass evacuation of humanitarian workers from one of Darfur's most volatile towns in a sign of the soaring violence that continues to tear apart the western Sudanese province.

Dozens of non-essential staff from UN and other relief agencies were airlifted out of El-Fasher on Tuesday night after the already fraught security situation in and around northern Darfur's regional aid hub worsened dramatically.

Three students were killed yesterday by Arab militia loyal to the government as rebels massed on the outskirts and the African Union (AU) warned of a fresh wave of attacks within the next 24 hours.

The situation had become so bad that staff had to be withdrawn for their own safety, said the UN.

"The rationale behind the decision is the heightened security concerns we have as a result of the increased presence of the Janjaweed in the town of El-Fasher and other armed groups in the area," Radhia Achouri, a spokesman for the UN, told Reuters.

The UN said 82 of the 134 staff that have left El-Fasher were it own workers, and the remainder were from other agencies. "If the tension subsides we will go back in," said Dawn Blaloc, spokeswoman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). "If it gets worse we can pull more people out."

El-Fasher exploded in violence this week after Janjaweed militia entered the town on horseback, looted a cattle market and clashed with rebels, killing two and losing two of their own men, the AU mission to Darfur said. Yesterday, a group of students were killed while demonstrating against the attacks, and civilians and refugees rioted outside the AU base in protest at the worsening violence.

Refugees from camps housing hundreds of thousands of people on the outskirts of El-Fasher say the peace-keepers are not doing enough to protect them from the government-backed militia in a conflict which has left about 200,000 people dead and 2.5 million without homes across Darfur over the past three years.

Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the Sudanese president, last week dashed Western hopes of deploying a strengthened "hybrid" peace-keeping force of UN and AU troops in the region, making it clear he opposed even a significant increase in the size of the existing ill-equipped and under-funded 7,000-strong AU force.

The worsening violence in El-Fasher is indicative of increasing tension throughout Darfur, where hundreds of thousands of people are in desperate need of food and shelter. The World Food Programme estimates that, aside from the 2.9 million people who received food aid last month, a further 224,000 were cut off from crucial supplies by fighting.

"Over the past two months, North Darfur has been the most difficult place in the country to work," said Greg Barrow, senior public affairs officer for the WFP. "We hope the situation doesn't get so bad that we have to scale back our operations "

Sudan is highly suspicious of foreign aid agencies, and has targeted more vocal organisations, especially those that have revealed figures for rape, which Khartoum denies is widespread.

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