NAIROBI, Kenya — The strongest of Darfur's rebel groups warned Friday that Sudan's expulsion of international relief agencies would risk lives and endanger chances for peace in the troubled region.
"If they insist on expelling NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) we have to bring them to their senses," Djibril Ibrahim, a senior official of the Justice and Equality Movement, told McClatchy. "The message has to be clear that they are breaching agreements and they have to be responsible for the consequences."
The statement raised the possibility of further unrest after Sudan's president, Omar al Bashir, was slapped with an arrest warrant for alleged war crimes in his country's western Darfur region. Bashir responded by ordering 13 major international aid groups and three Sudanese organizations to cease operating immediately, creating a possible humanitarian disaster in a poor, war-torn scrubland in which 4.7 million people depend on outside relief.
United Nations human rights officials condemned the action as a "grievous dereliction" of Sudan's obligation to protect its citizens. Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in Geneva that it was a "deplorable act" and that the office was considering investigating whether the closures constituted a war crime.
Bashir accuses the aid agencies of collaborating with the International Criminal Court, which issued the arrest warrant; the agencies deny the charge.
Since the Netherlands-based court ordered Bashir's arrest Wednesday — the first time it's charged a head of state with war crimes — tensions have risen dramatically in Sudan. Bashir has vowed to defy the warrant.
U.N. relief officials are scrambling to fill major gaps in food delivery, medical care, water provision and other services that could collapse in Darfur if the aid agencies — including branches of Care International, Doctors Without Borders and Save the Children — aren't reinstated.
Bashir's aggressive reaction shattered whatever good will his regime generated last month when it signed a statement with the Justice and Equality Movement that was seen as a possible foundation for peace talks. The group is the most powerful of Darfur's mishmash of rebels; last year, it got Bashir's attention by advancing 700 miles into Sudan, nearly reaching the capital before government forces stopped it.
Ibrahim, the rebels' chief negotiator at the talks in Doha, Qatar, said that Sudan's removal of aid groups violated a pledge to allow the free flow of humanitarian relief.
"Are they trying to hide something? Do they not want international witnesses?" Ibrahim said by phone from Chad, Sudan's neighbor and a favorite base for Darfur rebels. "The agreement we made in Doha is in jeopardy."
Analysts described the Doha meeting as a bid by Bashir to show that he was committed to resolving the crisis in Darfur despite the impending arrest warrant. Several rebel officials told McClatchy that they remained committed to negotiating, but experts said the indictment made serious peace talks very unlikely in the coming months.
"Doha is finished," said Fouad Hikmat, a Sudan expert with the International Crisis Group, an independent research center that studies conflict prevention. "JEM might continue to negotiate but they will raise the ceiling very, very high. They think the ICC has delegitimized Bashir."
Aid agencies said Friday that their international staff members in Sudan were gathering in the capital, Khartoum, preparing to leave the country.
The New York-based International Rescue Committee said that Sudanese authorities had closed one of its health clinics in the southern Darfur town of Kass, leaving tens of thousands of people in the area without medical care. The rescue committee and three other agencies that provide water in Kass were ordered to leave, leaving some 100,000 people without clean drinking water once the pumps that the groups installed and managed run out of fuel, probably within weeks, aid officials said.
Doctors Without Borders warned that outbreaks of bacterial meningitis — a possibly fatal disease — would go untreated in two areas from which its teams had been expelled, leaving 121,000 people without crucial vaccinations.
Sudanese authorities said they'd arrange to fill gaps left by the agencies, but Darfur's relief operation is the world's biggest and most complex. Independent experts said the government couldn't hope to match the experience and resources of the aid groups, which have reduced rates of illness and death dramatically over the past several years.
"Morbidity and mortality are going to increase if there's no replacement. It will increase the hardships of vulnerable groups," Hikmat said. "This decision is a strict violation of humanitarian law unless the government provides an alternative, and that is doubtful."
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