Violence cuts aid to 500,000 in Darfur: U.N. official

KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Attacks and banditry has left some 500,000 needy Darfuris out of reach of the world’s largest aid operation in Sudan’s remote west, a U.N. official said on Tuesday.

More than 12,000 humanitarian staff in Darfur assist 4.2 million people whose lives have been disrupted by four years of revolt. International experts estimate 200,000 have died in the fighting and from famine and disease.

“We are under attack every day: We have areas where we can’t go to, we have hijacks every day, we have aid workers attacked every day,” Mike McDonagh, north Sudan manager for the U.N. Office for the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said.

“In May 2006, the humanitarian community had access to almost everybody. Now we do not have access to about half a million people,” McDonagh told Reuters.

In the past, aid workers blamed government restrictions for lack of access to the needy in Darfur, but according to McDonagh, banditry and lawlessness are now primarily to blame.

“There is a lot of banditry. Some of these people may be former rebels or may be former pro-government militia,” he said, adding there was at least a serious incident every day.

Earlier, however, the International Committee of the Red Cross told Reuters in Geneva it had had better access to the region over the past three or four months although general lawlessness still threatened civilians.

Affected communities have seen “a high level of criminality and banditry”, Yasmine Dessimoz, the outgoing head of ICRC Darfur operations, said.

McDonagh said bandits had hijacked 80 vehicles belonging to the humanitarian community since the beginning of the year.

“Very many humanitarian staff were held at gun point which is a shocking thing for many people and, in many cases, they were detained for hours and sometimes overnight and very often they were dumped in the desert,” he said.

These incidents and others, said McDonagh, means humanitarian officials now have only limited access to large areas and no access to certain areas.

“We are starting to see the effect of the lack of access. There is an increase in malnutrition. There are also more diseases that prey on children,” he said.

Rape, looting, murder and government bombardment drove 2.5 million from their homes in Darfur, where mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms in early 2003, accusing Khartoum of neglecting their arid region.

Khartoum says only 9,000 people have died in the violence.

Only one of three negotiating rebel groups signed an agreement with the government in Abuja, Nigeria, last year.

The rebel groups have since split into several factions and aid workers say this has led to more violence, as rebel leaders lose control over fighters and bandits get more weapons.