Sudan's Brush With UN Envoy Leads to Calls for More Action

By Stephen Mbogo | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT


Nairobi, Kenya (CNSNews.com) - Sudan has backed down over a decision to bar United Nations humanitarian coordinator Jan Egeland from visiting the Darfur region, but aid groups say the government's actions call into further question its commitment to resolve the crisis.

Egeland's flight into Sudan was denied authorization to land over the weekend. He was scheduled to make a five-day trip to assess the humanitarian situation, pledge further assistance to relief agencies and draw further international attention to the three-year-old ethnic conflict.

He had also planned to assess humanitarian relief operations and resettlement of returning refugees into South Sudan, where a peace deal was finalized this past year to end a long and costly civil war.

Refused permission to land in Sudan, Egeland flew instead to the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, where he told reporters the international community may be "losing ground" in pushing for an end to the Darfur conflict and taking care of displaced people.

"My biggest worry is that all our achievements and advances are now being undermined," he said. "The international community should pressure Khartoum to act to stop increasing violence and harassment directed at civilians and aid workers."

A Sudanese foreign ministry official said earlier the U.N. official could not allow the visit because of the "special circumstances of the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed."

He made reference to Egeland's nationality and the recent controversy over Danish newspaper cartoons depicting Mohammed. Egeland is, in fact, Norwegian.

Another reason cited by Khartoum was that Egeland would spread false information about the conflict to the international community, which could in turn affect peace talks underway in Nigeria between the government and Darfurian rebel groups.

Yet another reason given was that airports in Darfur had been closed for maintenance.

After the U.N. and the U.S. government voiced strong concern about Sudan's action, Khartoum's foreign ministry backtracked, saying Egeland had in fact been asked to postpone his visit and would be welcome later.

Egeland said in reaction that he would consider returning at another time.

"Our main work now consists of trying to avert [Sudan's government] from throwing out our humanitarian colleagues on the ground," he said.

Khartoum this week ordered the departure of the Norwegian Refugee Council, a group that manages camps for 100,000 displaced people in southern Darfur.

Other humanitarian groups say the security situation has deteriorated, with sporadic fighting and attacks against civilians preventing the agencies from reaching the needy.

"It is hindering the provision of primary health care to refugees," said James Lawrence of the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders.

Humanitarian agencies say at least 3 million people need assistance.

Riek Rackar of the South Sudan Human Development, a humanitarian group assisting in refugee resettlement, said Khartoum's attempt to bar Egeland raised doubts about its commitment to engage the international community in ending the crisis and taking care of affected civilians.

"We need a greater force, a greater commitment to compel the government to end these atrocities," Rackar said.

An under-staffed and under-equipped African Union force may be replaced later this year by a larger U.N. force -- a move resisted by Khartoum.

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