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UN Team in Sudan to Determine How to Deliver Emergency Assistance to War-Torn Area - 2004-02-19

A U.N.-led team of humanitarian experts is visiting western Sudan to determine how to deliver emergency aid to hundreds of thousands of people in an area torn by fighting.

The team, led by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, is based in the Darfur region's three major towns of Nyala, Al-Geneina and El-Fashir. The main goal of the mission is to determine how to get assistance, such as food, water and medical supplies, to the most vulnerable populations in Darfur.

Fighting has been raging for at least one year among rebels, government soldiers and Arab militias.

The head of the U.N. agency's office in Khartoum, Ramesh Rajasingham, says up to one-million people have been affected by the Darfur war. These include as many as 700,000 people who are on the run.

He says aid workers have been able to reach only about 250,000 people, and are worried about the rest. He says most vulnerable people are in north Darfur.

"No one has been able to access these people, and we are not certain that they have been able to access any assistance themselves," said Mr. Rajasingham. "We do not want to let the ball drop on this, we want to make sure that we have enough people in the field, so that they can conduct the relevant assessments and then organize the necessary distribution of humanitarian assistance."

Mr. Rajasingham says the U.N. assessment follows assurances by the government earlier this month that it would allow aid workers into the region to deliver humanitarian assistance.

Until recently, aid workers said it was very difficult to get travel permits to go into Darfur, and if they did, the insecurity often would restrict their movements. But humanitarian aid is starting to pour in.

This week, the World Food Program airlifted 500 tons of sorghum into El-Fashir, and the U.N. refugee agency flew in 256 tons of blankets, kitchen utensils and other supplies to people in refugee camps in Chad. But aid workers say road access in Darfur is still dangerous.

Mr. Rajasingham stresses humanitarian access is a basic human right, regardless of the circumstances.

"Access should not be predicated on people granting us access," he said. "Access is a humanitarian law issue. In any conflict, vulnerable populations should always have access to humanitarian assistance."

The worldwide human rights group Amnesty International is also calling for international human rights monitors to go to Darfur to investigate reports of attacks against civilians, mainly by government troops and janjawid militias aligned with the government.

An Amnesty International statement released this week said humanitarian access is directly linked to the investigation of human rights abuses. The organization's researcher in the Africa Program, Elizabeth Hodgkin, explains why.

"If any clash happens, there should be an immediate investigation," said Ms. Hodgkin. "Then, humanitarian aid can go through."

The government has denied supporting the janjawid militias or attacking the people of Darfur.