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UN Aid Official Alarmed at Latest Sudan Statement

The United Nation's official in charge of humanitarian aid has expressed concern over Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir's remarks Monday that he wants all international aid groups out of his country within a year.

Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes said President Bashir's remarks came as a surprise and the United Nations is urgently seeking clarification.

"We were taken by surprise by that statement," he said. "We had no notice of it. And we have not yet had any clarification of it. Obviously that is what we are seeking urgently - to clarify what it means, and two, our position will clearly be that this decision is not appropriate and it is a decision that should be reversed."

President Bashir told a rally of soldiers and police in Khartoum that national aid groups would take over the job of distributing relief in the country and that foreign organizations could just leave it at the airport.

Holmes said if the order is enforced it would have "enormous" consequences for the people in the western conflict zone of Darfur, as well as throughout the rest of Sudan.

"Foreign donors and aid organizations - whether they are U.N. organizations or NGOs - would not be prepared simply to hand over goods to the Sudanese government to distribute as they see fit because that would not fit with our humanitarian principles," he said. "And secondly, there is a problem, certainly at least in Darfur, for example, in the camps, as I suggested earlier, the government workers are not welcome in those camps. It is not safe for them to go into those camps in present circumstances for all the political reasons you can imagine. So there are very severe problems that could arise."

Holmes said approximately 13,000 of the 14,000 relief workers in Darfur are already Sudanese. He said the United Nations would be happy to see Sudan's government take on a larger role in aid distribution in principle, but that it needs to be done in a practical way.

Meanwhile, the United States says it is reviewing the latest statement from Khartoum, and condemns it as it did Mr. Bashir's decision earlier this month to expel 13 international aid organizations. The State Department is sending the U.S. Charge D'Affaires in Khartoum to Darfur to assess the situation following the moves against the aid groups.

Earlier this month, President Bashir expelled 13 of the largest international aid organizations operating in Sudan, saying they were spies for the International Criminal Court - which handed down an arrest warrant for Mr. Bashir on charges of war crimes for atrocities committed in Darfur.