Defiant Sudan quickly expels aid agencies, imperiling Darfur

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 5, 2009 

NAIROBI, Kenya — A day after an international court called for his arrest on war-crimes charges, Sudanese President Omar al Bashir on Thursday took his anger out on Western humanitarian agencies, expelling 13 major relief groups working in Darfur and vowing to defy the arrest order.

Appearing before thousands of cheering supporters in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, a defiant Bashir dismissed the International Criminal Court's charges that he masterminded atrocities against civilians in Darfur as part of a Western plot to carry out regime change in the huge, oil-rich African nation.

"We are telling the colonizers, we are not submitting to you. We will not kneel," Bashir shouted.

While the 65-year-old president strutted and waved a walking stick to thrill the crowd, 13 leading aid groups that provide water, healthcare, education and other basic services in Darfur's overcrowded refugee camps were preparing to cease operations and leave the country under orders from Sudanese authorities. Sudanese officials accused the groups of cooperating with court investigators, charges that the agencies denied.

The expulsion orders were a drastic show of force by a government in crisis.

The humanitarian operation in Darfur is the largest and most complex in the world, and relief officials warned of devastating consequences for many of the 4.2 million people in Darfur who depend on outside agencies for services that the central government doesn't provide.

Without these agencies, aid workers said, food aid deliveries for 700,000 people are jeopardized, water pumps could run dry and rust, refugee schools could close, vital medicines could run out, pregnant women could lack prenatal care — and, in general, life in one of the most forbidding patches of Africa will become even more desperate.

"The population of Darfur is now being punished by its own government in response to the arrest warrant," said Tawanda Hondora of Amnesty International, an independent advocacy group. "The Sudanese government is effectively holding the entire civilian population of Darfur hostage."

The expulsions appeared to have been planned and coordinated far in advance of Wednesday's announcement by the court of an arrest warrant for Bashir on five counts of crimes against humanity and two counts of war crimes. Shortly after the decision, representatives of several relief agencies said they were summoned to a meeting in Khartoum where the government Humanitarian Aid Commission, which issues licenses for relief operations, said their licenses were being revoked immediately.

Bashir's Arab-led government in Khartoum has long neglected the country's vast periphery, including Darfur, a Texas-sized western desert where decades of underdevelopment fueled a 2003 rebellion by non-Arab tribes that morphed into an all-out civil war. Armed clashes and banditry continue to drive people from their homes into overcrowded camps; in the past two months, the camps registered more than 50,000 new arrivals.

At several agency offices, authorities confiscated telephones, computers and radios, relief officials said. The groups were also ordered to furnish bank account details and to pay off Sudanese staff members and terminate their contracts.

"It was very clear from the commission that there will be no possibility of a reversal," said a senior United Nations relief official in Sudan who didn't want to be named criticizing government policy. "We are told it's going to be extremely difficult to revoke because it comes from the highest senior staff of the government."

The expulsions targeted branches of Care International, Doctors Without Borders, the International Rescue Committee, MercyCorps, Oxfam, Save the Children and other agencies. U.N. officials are scrambling to fill in the gaps but other agencies are already stretched beyond their capacities.

In some parts of Darfur, the impact will be felt immediately. In Kalma, one of the largest camps in southern Darfur, an outbreak of meningitis, a potentially fatal spinal inflammation, could go unchecked because of the expulsion of Doctors Without Borders, the only medical agency in the area.

Agencies that have built and maintained pumps for drinking water in Kalma have also been expelled, the U.N. official said, and if the pumps break down they might not be replaced.

"Tomorrow some IDPs (internally displaced people) are going to wake up without water in Kalma," the official said.

Sudan has expelled some aid workers before, often reinstating their permits eventually, and many agencies had braced for a backlash from an arrest warrant for Bashir. Never have so many groups been ordered to leave at once, however.

African leaders continued to back Bashir, with the African Union announcing that it would send a high-level delegation to the U.N. Security Council to push for a one-year postponement of the warrant. In his own country, as well, even Bashir's critics said that no one in Sudan would dare oppose him.

"Nobody now has the courage to criticize the president," said Ghazi Suliman, an opposition figure and leading human rights lawyer. "Now in Sudan that is treason. Omar al Bashir is now more strong than ever."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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