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US Officials Condemn Mistreatment of Aid Workers By Sudanese Authorities in Darfur

US members of Congress and administration policy makers are criticizing the behavior of Sudan’s police forces against aid workers.

The most recent violent incident occurred a few weeks ago when a squad from the Sudanese secret police attacked a gathering of aid workers at Nyala, one of the major towns in Darfur.

The brutality of the attack shocked the international community, which demanded stronger measures to protect humanitarian workers in western Sudan. In the incident that caused uproar and resulted in some non-governmental organizations threatening to withdraw from Darfur, Sudanese policemen armed with sticks waded into about 20 aid workers who were enjoying a brunch and beat them viciously. In addition, at least one of the women suffered a sexual assault. Some of the victims were seriously injured, but were initially refused medical treatment, and were eventually charged by a Sudanese court with various crimes against the police who had attacked them.

At a recent heating in the US Congress, representative Sheila Jackson Lee said she was “appalled” by the incident, and called upon the US administration to take “stronger action” against the Sudanese government and its proxies.

“We frankly move too slowly!” Jackson Lee exclaimed. “I almost want to put on armor, and if it took running across waters into Sudan (then I would). How ridiculous and barbaric, to beat up on aid workers. It’s barbaric! And I think we should say it. And I think we should charge up chiefs, and rebels and others, because I believe the rebels have a cause, but not a cause to beat up and kill aid workers.”

The lives of hundreds of thousands of displaced people in Darfur were threatened by the deteriorating conditions for the humanitarian sector, said US Special Envoy to Sudan, Andrew Natsios. He said while the rebels were targeting NGO’s to steal their vehicles and equipment, forces allied to the government of Sudan were seemingly bent on using extreme violence against aid workers. According to Natsios, it appeared to be a calculated tactic designed to intimidate aid groups into leaving Darfur.

Last year the government of Sudan and one of the rebel groups involved in the fighting signed a peace accord ... As a result, said Natsios, African Union peacekeepers were no longer protecting Darfuri women when they left the camps to collect firewood and water. He said this had resulted in the rebels and government soldiers resuming their sexual assaults on female refugees.

“When rape is used as a instrument of terror, it’s very difficult for NGO’s and these (aid) programs to try to build institutions that deal with this through the legal system. There are programs in place dealing with violence against women, and they are beginning to have an effect in parts of Darfur, but there are some areas that we haven’t reached yet,” Natsios admitted.

The envoy was convinced that the unification of all the rebel groups into one negotiating bloc in Darfur would be the first step to save thousands of lives. This would allow the rebels a better position to formulate a comprehensive peace deal with the authorities in Khartoum. He urged the rebels in Darfur to follow the example of their counterparts in southern Sudan.

“The reason we have a peace agreement between the north and the south is because (deceased southern Sudanese leader) John Garang didn’t have any competitors negotiating with the north; right now there are 12 to 15 … different rebel movements, all trying to negotiate separate peace deals with the government of Sudan; it is simply chaotic. And you can’t have a peace settlement with the rebels in this disarray. They must unite politically and they need to put aside their egos and their tribal rivalries, to do what the southerners did.”

But some US political leaders who are involved in activism surrounding Darfur remain deeply skeptical of the possibility of peace in Darfur. They point out that the Sudanese government has a history of signing peace deals, and then breaking them.

Congressman Chris Smith, who has visited Darfur on a number of occasions, says the International Criminal Court should indict Sudan’s leaders – and their political and economic allies - for war crimes. Smith went so far as to call for the targeting of Chinese leaders, contending that China had fomented the conflict by supporting the Sudanese administration through mass purchase of its oil, heavy investment in Sudan’s fuel industry and by supplying weapons to Khartoum’s army.

“My hope would be that these people would be held to account. And frankly I would hope it would go even further; that those that have been complicit in making this happen - and that would include Chinese intermediaries (would also be held to account). The oil is providing the means, the weapons and the funding to make first the slaughter in the south and now the slaughter and genocide in the north possible,” Smith contended.

But Natsios was wary of a move so extreme as the issuing of war crimes indictments, saying such a development could have “unintended consequences”.

“The Sudanese government is very worried that the purpose of the UN troops going into Darfur is to arrest them for war crimes trials, which is one reason that they are resisting the UN going there. It seems to me the question is: justice or peace; which is more important right now?” Natsios asked, before stressing: “For me, personally … peace is most important. Because the war crimes trials are not going to help the people in those camps.”

Natsios was certain that indictments would “complicate” efforts to reach a peace agreement. But some US political leaders, such as Jackson Lee, were of the opinion that the ongoing talks aimed at ending the tragedy of Darfur were fast being exhausted, and that “different methods” should soon be followed to pressure the Khartoum government into ending the violence.