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US:  Situation in Darfur Region of Sudan 'Dire' - 2004-05-20

The United States said Thursday Sudan has promised to expedite access to the troubled western Darfur region by humanitarian aid workers and relief supplies. The State Department described the situation in Darfur as "dire."

U.S. officials have been frustrated by what they see as bureaucratic foot-dragging by Sudanese authorities in giving relief workers entry visas and then permission to travel to Darfur itself.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said officials in Khartoum told U.S. diplomats Thursday those access barriers are being dropped, but he made clear the United States will withhold a response until it sees whether the Sudanese promise is upheld in practice.

"This morning the government of Sudan informed us that it has decided to issue visas within 48 hours for humanitarian workers responding to the crisis in Darfur, and then to waive the travel permit requirements," he said. "The government of Sudan has also stated that it will insure that aircraft delivering humanitarian relief will not be restricted. As you know we've been urging the government of Sudan to take these steps and that are long overdue. We're reserving judgment until we see this new policy implemented."

The conflict in Darfur, pitting local rebels against Sudanese forces and Arab militia allies, erupted early last year and has displaced nearly a million people, many of whom have fled into neighboring Chad.

Mr. Boucher said the humanitarian situation in the remote, arid region "remains dire" and that it is likely that conditions will worsen when the rainy season arrives in the coming days and makes roads impassable to supply vehicles.

He said the United States has made extensive efforts to get relief supplies into the area by airlift, but that as of Tuesday only seven planeloads had arrived.

He said some U.S. aid workers have been allowed into the area but not in the requested numbers. He also said the United States continues to press Sudanese authorities to restrain the militiamen, who have been accused of using "ethnic-cleansing" against the black, non-Arab Darfur population.

The medical charity Doctors without Borders warned Thursday that the whole population of Darfur is "teetering on the verge" of mass starvation.