Military

Fresh round of aerial bombing in West Darfur forces UN staff to relocate

19 February 2008 – The United Nations refugee agency has had to withdraw its staff from the volatile Sudanese-Chadian border area after a series of aerial bombardments over the past two days in West Darfur that have also sparked deep concern from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the world body’s top humanitarian official.

Nine staff with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had been caring for newly arrived Sudanese refugees in the Birak area of eastern Chad before the sudden relocation, the agency reported.

“It is extremely frustrating to have to withdraw staff from the border,” said Jorge Holly, head of the UNHCR field office in the eastern Chadian town of Guereda. “It is not only sad, but frustrating, because we cannot provide the protection assistance we wish to give to these newly arrived refugees.”

Mr. Holly said the team would return immediately to the Birak area – currently home to as many as 10,000 Darfurians – as soon as the security situation calmed down. Those refugees arrived in the area only a week or so ago after militia attacks, reportedly backed by Government forces, against three other towns in West Darfur.

The UNHCR staff left for Guereda a few hours after a group of refugees arrived from West Darfur carrying a 55-year-old whom they said had lost both her legs during an air raid yesterday by Sudanese Antonov planes on the Aro Sharow camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs). The woman later died.

One of the relocated UNHCR staff said they heard the sounds of bombs and explosions coming from just across the border in Sudan and felt the battle on the ground as well.

Aro Sharow is normally home to about 4,000 to 5,000 IDPs seeking safety from the conflict between rebels, Government forces and allied militias that has engulfed the arid Darfur region since 2003.

Describing the bombing of Aro Sharow as unacceptable, Mr. Ban said in a statement released by his spokesperson that all parties to the Darfur conflict must immediately end hostilities and commit to the political process being led by the Special Envoys of the UN and African Union.

“A negotiated settlement to the Darfur conflict cannot take place amid continuing violence and the massive displacement of civilians,” he said.

John Holmes, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and the Emergency Relief Coordinator, also urged maximum restraint from all sides amid reports that further violence is imminent.

“I am very concerned for the civilian population caught in the middle of this violence,” he said yesterday. “Should further attacks occur, the consequences for 20,000 civilians in this area could be disastrous.”

In his statement Mr. Ban voiced alarm about fresh reports indicating that Government forces and allied militia groups were massing in the Jebel Moon area of West Darfur, calling it “a worrying sign that there will be continued hostilities in the area.

“In addition to putting the lives of innocent civilians at risk, the ongoing violence significantly reduces the humanitarian community’s access to those in need of life-saving assistance.”

Mr. Holmes noted that UN humanitarian agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been working to assess and deliver assistance to the beleaguered civilian inhabitants of West Darfur after the Sudanese Government lifted a blockade of almost two months of the state’s northern corridor.

But, “as the Government has reportedly now banned all flights to areas north of El Geneina [the state capital] for the next three days, further efforts to assess the humanitarian situation on the ground are limited,” he warned.

More than 200,000 people have been killed in the Darfur conflict and at least 2.2 million others displaced, and the hybrid UN-AU peacekeeping force deployed to the region (UNAMID) is working to try to quell the violence and suffering.



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