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Sudan's Darfur Conflict Could Trigger Regional Problems, Says UN Official - 2004-01-15

A senior U-N official is warning of serious regional problems, if the fighting between government and rebel forces in Western Sudan does not stop. The official has just returned from a one-week mission to examine the situation of tens-of-thousands of Sudanese refugees who have fled to neighboring Chad.

The U-N official, Tom Eric Vraalsen, describes the situation in the Darfur region of Sudan as very serious. He says he is particularly upset that the Sudanese government in Khartoum is denying aid agencies access to the region.

He says about one-million of Darfur's six-million people are affected by fighting between the government and the rebel Sudan Liberation Army. This includes 600-thousand internally displaced people. He says people are fleeing for safety across the border into Chad, swelling the number of Sudanese refugees, now estimated at 95-thousand.

The Sudan Liberation Army is not involved in the peace talks that are reported to be near completion in Kenya. Those talks involve the Sudan government and another rebel group - the Sudan People's Liberation Army.

Mr. Vraalsen says the fighting in Darfur must stop. Otherwise, he says the misery of the people will go on and the war could have a spillover effect in other countries.

"Obviously, a continuation of the problems in Darfur could have serious political repercussions in the sense that it could destabilize the area along the Chad-Sudan border and it could have repercussions also regionally if it continues. It has to be brought to an end. The war, the killing, the fighting has to stop in Darfur."

Mr. Vraalsen is the U-N secretary-general's special envoy for humanitarian affairs for Sudan.

In that capacity, he met with Chad's president and other senior officials. He also conferred with U-N workers and private aid agencies during his one-week visit to the region.

He says he is appalled at the conditions under which the Sudanese refugees are living. He says they are scattered along the 600-kilometer border with Sudan, and are victims of regular cross-border raids by Sudanese militiamen who steal their livestock.

Mr. Vraalsen says the refugees have nothing, and international assistance has been minimal. As a consequence, the U-N official says, he has decided to put together an emergency program to provide aid to the refugees during the next three months.

"It is a program, which amounts to four-point-three-million dollars. What I want to do is to buy food locally, in the southern part of Chad, where food is available. They had a good harvest, or to buy it in Cameroon, and fly it to Abache, and from there we can truck the food to various destinations where the refugees will be."

In a related development, the U-N refugee agency began registering tens-of-thousands of new Sudanese refugees. The agency says it hopes to start moving some of the refugees to a new, safer camp, about 55-kilometers from the dangerous border area.