Millions endangered by Sudan aid group expulsions: U.N. agencies

GENEVA Fri Mar 6, 2009 7:58am EST

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GENEVA (Reuters) - United Nations humanitarian agencies said Friday Sudan's expulsion of 13 foreign aid organizations threatened the lives and health of millions of people. Sudan announced the expulsion of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on Wednesday for atrocities in Sudan's western Darfur region.

The "deplorable" move could also be a breach of international humanitarian law, U.N. officials suggested.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called on Bashir to reconsider the expulsion, saying the NGOs help 4.7 million people in Africa's biggest country. This includes 2.7 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), or people forced to flee home within the country, most of whom are now in refugee camps.

"To knowingly and deliberately deprive such a huge group of civilians of the means to survive is a deplorable act. Humanitarian assistance has nothing to do with the ICC proceedings," U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said.

"To punish civilians because of a decision of the ICC is a grievous dereliction of the government's duty to protect its own people," he told a news briefing.

IMPOSSIBLE TASK

Sudan has accused some of the aid groups of passing evidence to the ICC and making false reports of genocide and rape.

Aid groups deny working with the Hague-based court and U.N. agencies said it would be almost impossible for them to carry out their work without key units of NGOs such as British-based Oxfam and Save the Children and French medical aid group Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) on the ground.

Of the 76 NGOs in Darfur with which the U.N. is working, the 13 that have been expelled account for half the aid that is distributed in the region, said Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Their departure would leave 1.1 million people without food, 1.5 million without medical care and more than one million without drinking water, she told the briefing.

"It will be very, very challenging for both the remaining humanitarian organizations and for the government of Sudan to fill this gap," she said. MSF International President Christophe Fournier said his organization worked in an impartial manner to deliver needed medical assistance without involvement in politics.

"We have obviously nothing to do with the International Criminal Court. We do not cooperate nor give any information to the International Criminal Court," he told a news briefing.

Fournier, a French medical doctor, said the expulsion of the French and Dutch MSF units would make it extremely difficult for the remaining workers from MSF Spain, Switzerland, and Belgium to provide life-saving aid.

The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR fears that the loss of aid within Darfur could prompt a mass influx of refugees into neighboring countries, such as Chad, already under pressure from thousands of refugees and IDPs.

"Our experience shows that when vulnerable populations are unable to get the help they need, they go elsewhere in search of protection and assistance," UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond said.

The head of Sudan's state Humanitarian Aid Commission Hassabo Mohamed Abd el-Rahman has said civilians would not be affected as the work of the expelled agencies would be taken up by the government and remaining humanitarian groups.

(Additional reporting by Laura MacInnis)

(Editing by Stephanie Nebehay and Philippa Fletcher)

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