March 19, 2009 / 2:48 PM / 10 years ago

Aid expulsions spark disease fears in Darfur camps

* Darfuris refuse aid from state-backed relief groups

* Rising risk of disease outbreaks in camps

* Concerns over peacekeepers taking on aid work

By Andrew Heavens

KHARTOUM, March 19 (Reuters) - Aid officials said there were fears of fresh disease outbreaks in two Darfur refugee camps after residents refused to let state-backed aid agencies come in to replace expelled humanitarians.

Sudan expelled 13 foreign aid groups and closed three local organisations this month, accusing them of helping the International Criminal Court build up a war crimes case against the country’s president. The groups deny working with the court.

The expulsions sparked international outrage with aid groups warning the closures would have a devastating impact on hundreds of thousands of people uprooted by the conflict.

Sudanese government aid officials said the expelled groups’ work would be covered by remaining international organisations and scores of local groups that authorities were planning to bring into the area.

But aid officials and activists said residents of South Darfur’s huge Kalma and Kass camps were refusing aid from state-backed organisations, even though they were running short of medicines, food aid and clean water.

Hussein Abu Sharati, who says he represents displaced Darfuris in 158 camps, said Kalma residents had met and voted to refuse all aid from Sudanese groups. "They don’t see these groups as aid organisations, they see them as tools of the government," he told Reuters by satellite phone.

"IDPs (internally displaced people) in Kalma and Kass are refusing all access to the government and local aid groups even if it means receiving less water or a greater risk of disease," said an aid worker from one of the ousted organisations, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The worker said residents had blocked state deliveries of fuel for their own generators, set up to pump fresh water in to the camp, raising the risk of the spread of diseases like cholera. Camp leaders had refused to let Ministry of Health officials vaccinate residents against a meningitis outbreak.

The reports were impossible to verify independently as international journalists have not been able to get travel permits to visit Kalma and surrounding camps in recent days.

Kalma and Kass are home to tens of thousands of people who fled their homes after raids and attacks by government troops and militias during the Darfur conflict.

International experts say almost six years of fighting has uprooted 2.7 million people. Many of the camps that have taken them in have become highly politicised.

Darfur’s joint U.N./African Union UNAMID peacekeeping force has said it is ready to do what it can to fill any humanitarian gaps left by the expulsions of the aid agencies.

"UNAMID does not have a mandate for humanitarian assistance. But it is not going to let people die," said Daniel Augstburger, head of the humanitarian sector for the U.N. Mission in Darfur.

Aid workers have been concerned about suggestions the peacekeepers might take on humanitarian work in Sudan.

"Gradually the line between peacekeepers and aid workers gets blurred and then everyone becomes a fair target," said one.

Armed men attacked an UNAIMD patrol in South Darfur this week, killing one Nigerian peacekeeper.

Five workers for the Belgian arm of Medecins Sans Frontieres were kidnapped in North Darfur last week and held for three days by a group that, government officials said, was protesting against the International Criminal Court. (Additional reporting by Khaled Abdelaziz; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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