The State Department has condemned Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir's announced decision to bar international relief groups from distributing aid in that country within a year, and said blame for resulting hardships will rest with the Khartoum government. The Obama administration is coming under pressure from Darfur advocacy groups to step up diplomatic pressure on Sudan.  

The State Department said it could not immediately confirm Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir's latest move against humanitarian organizations.  

But Acting Spokesman Robert Wood said the United States is reviewing the announced decision, and condemns it as it did Mr. Bashir's decision earlier this month to expel 13 international aid organizations, after his indictment by the International Criminal Court for allegedly orchestrating Darfur atrocities:

"Any responsibility for humanitarian suffering that flows out of this decision should fall squarely on the shoulders of the Sudanese. And we have called on the Sudanese government to reverse this decision. We believe it was a mistake, and the only result will be further harm, further suffering by the people of Sudan," Wood said.

Wood added the State Department is sending the U.S. Charge D'Affaires in Khartoum, Alberto Fernandez, to Darfur to assess the situation following the moves against the aid groups.

The announcement coincided with a call by U.S. non-governmental groups concerned about Darfur for greater diplomatic involvement by the Obama administration to try to reverse the Khartoum government actions.

In a telephone conference call with Washington reporters, the executive director of the anti-genocide and war crimes group ENOUGH, John Norris, framed Mr. Bashir's latest actions as a challenge to President Obama:

"I think it is evident that President Bashir is in a mood to escalate. He is willing to inflict incredibly-steep costs on the people of Sudan. He is not particularly interested in a viable peace process at this point, and I think what we are really seeing is a very stern test, not only for the new Obama administration, but for the [U.N.] Security Council and even for those states that are Sudan's erstwhile allies," Norris said.

The president of the Save Darfur Coalition, Jerry Fowler, said the scope of what he termed a "looming catastrophe" in Darfur is of such a magnitude that it requires direct engagement by President Obama, including personal calls to key African and Arab leaders, who have to date been protective of Mr. Bashir.

"Presidential engagement with these leaders can make a difference in isolating Khartoum, and putting pressure on Bashir to reverse course. Second, the president obviously cannot do it by himself. He needs an envoy who owns this issue, who has the stature, mandate and authority to drive Sudan policy and to do the day-to-day diplomacy," Fowler said.

Fowler said if the administration is not ready to name a special Sudan envoy, it should task a senior diplomat to handle Darfur issues full-time on an interim basis. The last U.S.-Sudan envoy, Richard Williamson, stepped down at the end of the Bush administration.

State Department Spokesman Wood said he expects the new administration to name a Sudan envoy "at some point" after a review of regional policy is completed.