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US Official Inspects Relief Efforts in Darfur

The U.S. ambassador to the U.N. food programs in Rome, is touring Sudan's embattled Darfur region to witness first-hand the human suffering caused by 21 months of conflict, and check on relief efforts.

In an interview with the Voice of America at the World Food Program field office here, Ambassador Tony Hall said he wanted to see the situation for himself, and make sure food aid, most of it donated by the United States, is getting to the people who need it most.

"The U.S. is a big player. [About] 53-60 percent of all the food aid and other humanitarian things coming not only in Darfur, but in all of Sudan," he said. "It's a very large humanitarian gift. But it's important that I come and see it to be sure that it's getting through to the people and that it's doing its job. That's why I'm here."

Ambassador Hall is known for his tenacity in dealing with hunger and humanitarian issues in war-torn areas.

This is his second attempt to get into Sudan this year. The Sudanese government delayed issuing his entry visa two months ago, forcing him to postpone his trip.

On this three-day excursion to Darfur, he is visiting refugee camps clustered around the region's larger cities, El Fasher and Nyala.

On Saturday, he is expected to visit Zalengi, where several U.N.-chartered food trucks were attacked and looted, forcing U.N. agencies to halt food distributions and evacuate their workers. More than 80,000 people were left without access to food aid.

Mr. Hall also visited Sudan In 1998, when he was a member of the U.S. congress, with the aim of convincing a reluctant Khartoum government to allow food and medicine into the country's southern areas, where millions of people were starving after more than a decade of war.

Persistent violence continues to make it difficult for U.N. relief workers to reach needy people in Darfur. Continuing attacks on civilians by Arab militias allied with the government, and reprisal attacks by the region's two rebel groups, are forcing people to abandon their farms. U.N. officials say tens of thousands of people are streaming into U.N. camps every week, worsening a humanitarian crisis that has already been described as the world's worst.

Ambassador Hall says he is concerned that people in Darfur are still too afraid to go home. It is that fear, he says, that will likely prolong the need for U.N. food aid in the region.

"It's tough because we want the people to go to the villages, to where they live," he noted. "But they're not going to go back, because they're in fear. It concerns us because we're going to be here for some time. If they don't go back in the next four or five months to plant, then we're going to be here for a while. And so that concerns us because we're going to have to deliver a lot of humanitarian aid but it also concerns us that a lot of people's lives are jeopardy. That really concerns us."

Ambassador Hall's visit to Darfur came as the U.N. Security Council held a special meeting in Nairobi, aimed at pressing for a peace deal in the much larger and deadlier conflict in southern Sudan.

The U.S. official's trip follows a visit to Darfur by Jan Pronk, the U.N. envoy to Sudan, who criticized Sudanese officials and local police for using excessive violence to relocate nearly five thousand displaced people who had camped on the town's outskirts.