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Sudan criticises Palin and Biden over Darfur flight ban

KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudan criticised both U.S. vice-presidential contenders on Sunday for suggesting they might support a no-fly zone over Darfur, saying the plan showed they knew little about the conflict.

United Nations officials, aid groups and rebels have repeatedly accused the Sudanese government of using Antonov aircraft and helicopters to attack rebel positions and villages in more than five years of fighting in Darfur.

Many activists have called for the U.N. to police a no-fly zone over the region to stop attacks.

Sarah Palin, the Republican governor of Alaska, said she supported a flight ban in Sudan’s remote west during a televised debate with her Democratic rival Joe Biden on Thursday.

Biden, the Democratic senator from Delaware, did not explicitly call for a ban but said: “I don’t have the stomach for genocide when it comes to Darfur. We can now impose a no-fly zone. It is within our capacity. We can lead NATO if we are willing to take a hard stand.”

But Sudanese foreign ministry spokesman Ali al-Sadig on Sunday dismissed the statements of both candidates saying a no-fly zone would be impractical and useless.

“They know very little about what is going on here,” he said. “Their statements were meant for local consumption. They had nothing to do with Darfur.”

Sadig said an air ban would be ineffective because the Sudanese armed forces were not using aircraft in their ongoing struggle against rebel groups in Darfur.

He said government planes and helicopters were only being used to fight bandits and protect humanitarian convoys.

“It would be a very short-sighted move. Curbing the actions of the armed forces would impede the flow of humanitarian aid to Darfur and tie the hands of the government in its efforts to prevent attacks on aid convoys,” he added.

Earlier his year, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he would like to move ahead with a no-fly zone for Darfur “if it were at all possible.”

But British foreign ministry officials later said they were not pursuing a ban because it would restrict humanitarian work. Darfur’s size and a shortage of planes to monitor the ban would also make it “a major logistical challenge,” they added. The remote western region is roughly the same size as Spain.

The Darfur conflict has killed 200,000 and driven more than 2.5 million from their homes, say international experts. Khartoum puts the death toll at 10,000.

Mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms in early 2003 accusing central government of neglecting Darfur. In response, Khartoum mobilised mostly Arab militia who stand accused of a widespread campaign of rape, murder and looting.

The Bush administration has called the fighting in Darfur genocide, a charge that Khartoum denies.

Editing by Dominic Evans