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Safety Concerns Force Sudan to Ban Humanitarian Flights - 2002-09-27

The government in Sudan has banned all humanitarian flights into the southern part of the country for the next nine days into early October. Aid agencies are concerned about some three million people who depend on the flights for survival.

Authorities in Khartoum Friday told international aid organizations that no aid flights would be allowed into the southern-most part of Sudan until early next month. The authorities say the move is necessary because the government can no longer guarantee the safety of aid personnel in the area.

Aid officials believe that the flight ban could signal a new government offensive against rebel forces in the south.

Martin Dawes, the Nairobi spokesman for the U.N. coordination organization, Operation Lifeline Sudan, says the flight ban effectively cuts off aid to some three million people in the region, trapped by the country's long-running civil war.

Operation Lifeline Sudan alone flies 20 times a day from its base in northwestern Kenya to southern Sudan, taking several tons of food and medicine. The planes also routinely bring critically injured and sick people from the area back to Nairobi for treatment.

Mr. Dawes says the United Nations is extremely concerned.

"I think many problems could arise," he said. "We are talking to the government to see if we can change the parameters of this. But at the moment, there is a complete flight denial over those areas."

The flight ban follows a breakdown of peace talks between the government and the rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Movement earlier this month. The government pulled out of the talks, after the rebels captured the strategic southern town of Torit.

Sudanese warplanes, in recent weeks, have been conducting an intense bombing campaign in Torit to dislodge the rebels. Now, there is fear the government is preparing to step up its attacks against the rebels with increased air attacks and troop reinforcements.

On Thursday, the United States condemned the bombing, which it says has killed numerous civilians. It has urged both sides to return to the negotiating table. The United States helped forge a ceasefire deal earlier in the year, and has backed Kenyan-led efforts to end the 19-year-long war that has killed about two million people. The civil war has pitted the government in the mainly Muslim Arab north of Sudan against rebels fighting for more autonomy for the mostly Christian and animist south.