U.S. Sudan envoy: Slim chance aid groups will return

Sunday, April 5, 2009

KHARTOUM, Sudan -- Chances are slim that all the aid groups expelled by the Sudanese government will return, and alternative ways must immediately be found to help the millions of people in Darfur, President Barack Obama's new envoy to Sudan said Saturday.

Envoy J. Scott Gration made his comments after touring Darfur's fastest growing refugee camp -- one month after an international court issued an arrest warrant for Sudan's president for war crimes in the vast, western region. In response, President Omar al-Bashir expelled 13 major international aid agencies -- most of them operating in Darfur -- and accused them of cooperating with the International Criminal Court.

Gration, a retired Air Force general, said the basic needs of the more than 70,000 refugees in the Zamzam camp are barely being met largely because of Sudan's expulsion of the aid groups. He warned that water could run out in the northern Darfur camp in about two months and there could be an outbreak of preventable diseases if immediate solutions are not found.

"I have come away with a renewed sense of urgency. ... [I] believe we are on the brink of a deepening crisis in Darfur," Gration told reporters in a telephone interview after touring Zamzam.

Gration said he was doubtful all the expelled groups would return but warned that Sudanese agencies alone will not be able to meet the needs.

"I don't think that the prospects for returning the 13 NGOs -- as a group of 13 -- is very strong or very high," he said. "That is why we need to come up with creative ways immediately, and when I say immediately I mean in the next weeks, to be able to compensate by bringing in other capabilities or taking steps to expand the capabilities of existing NGOs."

The expulsion of the 13 aid agencies, along with three Sudanese groups also forced to shut down, has effectively halted the work of 40 percent of the aid providers in Darfur. The U.N. has estimated that the decision threatens more than 3 million people with the loss of food, health care and safe drinking water.

The Sudanese government has said it will be able to fill the gaps and would work with local groups and U.N. agencies to assist those affected.

Gration did not directly blame the Sudanese government for the crisis -- a marked departure from his predecessor's sharp tone with Sudanese officials. He said he was confident the Sudanese government "will understand the seriousness of this situation and work with the international community to resolve this issue."

The U.S. envoy also stressed that he hoped "to create an environment where these decisions can be made."

Gration also said he will also support the U.N.-African Union chief mediator in efforts to resume the now stalled peace talks held in Qatar and try to bring all the rebel groups to the negotiating table. Talks in February were attended by one rebel group, which later vowed to boycott further negotiations because of the expulsion decision. Gration said he plans to travel to Qatar by the end of April.

The March 4 warrant by the Netherlands-based ICC accuses al-Bashir of orchestrating atrocities against Darfur's ethnic African population. Mostly ethnic African rebels took up arms against the government in 2003, complaining of neglect and discrimination. Up to 300,000 people have been killed and 2.7 million displaced in the conflict, according to U.N. figures. Sudan says the numbers are exaggerated.

Before Gration's trip, Obama said the conflict in Sudan would not be resolved overnight, but also called the expulsion decision "unacceptable" and said United States and the world cannot sit idly by.

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