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U.S. "gravely concerned" by Sudan move on aid groups

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United States on Friday slammed as “reckless” and “callous” Khartoum’s decision to expel more than a dozen aid groups, saying it put millions of people’s lives at risk in Sudan’s western Darfur region.

“The United States is gravely concerned by the reckless decision of the Sudanese government to expel international aid groups working to ease the suffering of Sudan’s citizens,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice told reporters.

“The humanitarian situation in the country is already dire and this callous step threatens the lives of innocents already suffering from years of war and upheaval,” she said in a conference call.

The move by Sudan came after the International Criminal Court charged President Omar Hassan al-Bashir with war crimes in Darfur. Khartoum ordered 13 high-profile aid agencies out of Darfur, including Oxfam and Save the Children, accusing them of passing evidence to the court.

Rice spoke shortly before the U.N. Security Council held closed-door discussions on Sudan. Diplomats said council members could not agree on a statement because of differences over whether it should mention the ICC arrest warrant.

“Millions of civilians, including untold thousands of children and elderly people, will be left even more vulnerable to starvation, disease, despair and death if the government of Sudan does not immediately change course,” Rice said.

“The government of Sudan at its own choosing is now heading down a path toward even greater international isolation.”

SECURITY COUNCIL TAKES NO ACTION

Rice said she had a “forceful” conversation with Sudan’s U.N. ambassador, Abdalmahmoud Abdalhaleem, in which she told him the decision was counterproductive and an “enormous escalation” that would exacerbate the situation on the ground and harm Sudan’s relations with the international community.

Abdalhaleem told reporters the expulsion of nongovernmental organizations was a “storm in a teacup” and denied it had anything to do with the ICC indictment.

He said Khartoum had ample evidence of wide-ranging treachery by NGOs in Sudan, although the only examples he gave had to do with NGOs providing information to the ICC.

“The evidence is there, I can bring it over,” he said.

British Ambassador John Sawers was skeptical. “I certainly am not aware of any evidence to back that up,” he told reporters after the Security Council meeting.

Rice was asked if Washington was still considering the possibility of imposing a no-fly zone over Darfur as the new Obama administration indicated previously. She said that option was being “considered and discussed” as part of a policy review the administration is undertaking.

The council adjourned without action on Sudan. France had drafted a statement urging Khartoum to reverse its decision on the NGOs, but Sawers said one of the five permanent members -- the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China -- had blocked it. He left no doubt he was referring to China.

“One delegation insisted on a reference, which we thought was unwarranted and not relevant, to the ICC decision,” he said. “I think the Russians would have been able to agree to a reasonable statement.”

China says it wants the council to use its power to halt the ICC case against Bashir. Russia is with China, but Britain, France and the United States oppose deferring the proceedings.

Additional reporting by Patrick Worsnip; Editing by Peter Cooney

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