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Sudan restricting access to Darfur, aid workers say

NAIROBI, Kenya—The difficult relationship between the Sudanese government and aid workers who are trying to help some 2 million refugees in Darfur worsened this week. Aid workers say authorities are imposing greater restrictions on relief operations as violence in the region escalates and tens of thousands more people flee their homes each month.

In the latest developments, a top humanitarian official was denied a visit to the war-torn Darfur region, and the relief agency that's managing Darfur's largest refugee camp was suddenly told it must leave the region.

Because of a lack of security and dwindling funding, relief agencies say they can't reach 30 percent of the refugees in Darfur, the lowest level of access in two years.

"We have no security for our work," Jan Egeland, the United Nations' emergency relief coordinator, said Friday in Nairobi. "We are witnesses to massive attacks against the civilian population."

Egeland said 200,000 more people in Darfur had fled their homes in the past three months in response to continuing attacks by government-sponsored Arab militias called the janjaweed. Sudanese authorities armed the militias in 2003 to quell an uprising by Darfur's predominantly black population. The militias' campaign has left at least 200,000 people dead, most from disease and starvation.

This week, Sudan refused to allow Egeland to visit Darfur. Authorities gave multiple reasons, including that Egeland's native country, Norway, had published the controversial cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad earlier this year.

Egeland said Sudan didn't want him to see how bad things in Darfur had become.

The move earned widespread condemnation from the U.N., the U.S. State Department and other diplomats. Sudan is already at odds with much of the international community over the U.N.'s plan to take over peacekeeping operations later this year from the African Union, whose underfunded force of 7,000 troops has been unable to stem the violence.

Sudanese authorities later said Egeland could reschedule his visit, but he said Friday that he hadn't decided whether to return.

Sudan also expelled a leading relief agency, the Norwegian Refugee Council, from Darfur this week for unspecified reasons. The council coordinated relief efforts in the Kalma camp in southern Darfur, which is home to 100,000 displaced people.

Astrid Sehl, a spokeswoman at the council's headquarters in Oslo, said the cartoon controversy might have played a role in the government's decision because local authorities "keep saying that Scandinavians are terrorists." Last month, a Swedish envoy canceled a visit to Darfur after a local official said she wasn't welcome.

But for the past several months, Sehl said, the council and other relief agencies have faced a number of obstacles from the authorities.

Recently, authorities would allow foreign aid workers permits to travel to Darfur for only three days at a time, Sehl said. They also restricted the amount of fuel that the workers could transport to Darfur, severely limiting relief operations in a region with almost no infrastructure.

Sehl said the council had estimated the amount of time its staff in Sudan lost in dealing with the bureaucracy as one month for every year.

"In the past four to five months, the whole situation for humanitarian organizations has been worse and worse, and our ability to access the beneficiaries has become more and more difficult," she said.

Darfur remains one of the most dangerous places in the world for relief agencies to work, with aid workers occasionally the victims of carjackings, kidnappings and even murder.

The challenges have reversed the progress made last year, when thousands of people in camps were vaccinated against measles, polio and other diseases, aid workers said. The United Nations Children's Fund recently cut short a polio-vaccination program because it couldn't reach certain parts of Darfur safely.

As a result of the insecurity, "we're predicting that we will see the return of a high rate of malaria and a high incidence of other diseases," said Roshan Khadivi, a spokeswoman for UNICEF in Sudan.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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