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UNICEF Warns of Humanitarian Catastrophe in Sudan's Darfur Region - 2003-12-12

The United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, warns of a humanitarian catastrophe, if the Sudanese government continues to prevent humanitarian workers from going to the conflict-ridden Darfur region. Thousands of people have fled fighting in the region in western Sudan.

UNICEF reports hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes since fighting broke out seven months ago between the rebel Justice and Equality Movement and government forces. It describes the situation of women and children as particularly desperate.

Darfur is in one of the poorest regions of Sudan. UNICEF Spokesman Damien Personnaz says, even in normal circumstances, the region is hard to reach because it is so far from the capital, Khartoum.

"Now, the government has denied all humanitarian agencies access, so UNICEF and other U.N. agencies are complaining to the government about this," he said. "We need to have access. UNICEF fears that the acute malnutrition among children less than five-years-old will increase dramatically due to a lack of food, due to displacement, due to lack of access from humanitarian agencies, and also, already very poor sanitary [conditions] and access to safe water."

Mr. Personnaz says he does not know why the government refuses to let aid agencies go to Darfur. But, he says the authorities might be embarrassed that fierce fighting is going on in this remote corner of Sudan at a time when a peace deal ending 25 years of civil war is almost concluded.

While the situation in Darfur continues to deteriorate, the U.N. refugee agency reports, thousands of people, mainly women and children, are continuing to flee for safety to eastern Chad. UNHCR Spokesman Ron Redmond says 75,000 Sudanese refugees began fleeing to Chad in April to escape the spiraling conflict in the region.

"This is basically an invisible emergency that does not get a lot of attention around the world, but it is something of extreme concern to us," said Ron Redmond. "UNHCR is concerned about security along Chad's eastern border with Sudan, and we plan to begin relocating the Sudanese refugees from that area to sites deeper inside Chad in the next few weeks."

Mr. Redmond says the assistant high commission for refugees, who begins a six-day visit to Chad and the Central African Republic on Saturday, plans to travel to the refugee camps in eastern Chad to examine conditions.