U.N. official says Sudan blocks aid for hungry Islamic regime bans flights to war zone

July 12, 1996|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK -- A United Nations aid agency yesterday accused Sudan's Islamic fundamentalist government of banning food flights to a beleaguered rebel-held war zone, threatening hundreds of thousands with starvation and death.

Holding up a photograph of a child with a bloated abdomen and matchstick legs, Catherine Bertini, executive director of the U.N.'s World Food Program, said:

"When people look like this, and more and more children are dying any decision not to allow food to reach them is cruel."

As Sudan faced new international condemnation, the government in Khartoum announced it was investigating allegations that slavery exists as part of its war against the African Christian and animist population in the south, and said it was willing to help international groups join the search for evidence.

Sudan has previously refused to allow international human rights monitors to investigate slavery reports.

The government's announcement said it was now willing to provide logistical support to national, regional and international organizations and diplomats accredited to Sudan who would like to join the investigation.

The announcement in Khartoum came a month after The Sun published a three-part series detailing how two reporters from the newspaper entered Sudan illegally and bought -- and freed -- two young slaves for $500 each to prove that the practice does exist.

The Ministry of External Relations said in a statement it was "deeply concerned" about the allegations of slavery.

Sudan, it asserted, was committed to eradicating slavery in line with international agreements and conventions.

"The Sudan strongly condemns such practices in all their forms and manifestations, wherever they exist, as being inhuman and degrading. It is willing at all times to exert its utmost effort to stop these practices," the statement said.

The U.N. General Assembly in 1995 called on the government of the huge east African country to investigate allegations of slavery and similar practices, but got no immediate response.

Yesterday's announcement came on the eve of a U.N. Security Council meeting to consider continuing or extending sanctions against Sudan for its support of international terrorism.

The sanctions, which expire today, called on governments to reduce the presence and restrict the movement of Sudanese diplomats abroad.

The sanctions, imposed earlier this year, were a response to Sudan's refusal to extradite three suspects in an assassination attempt against President Hosni Mubarak of neighboring Egypt.

The Security Council also will be under pressure from the World Food Program to act against the Khartoum government's refusal to allow C-130 Hercules flights into Bahr El Ghazal, a province on the front line of the civil war. It was in this province that The Sun reporters bought the two slaves.

Bertini told a news conference in the U.N. building here yesterday that Sudan halted the C-130 flights into the region, claiming they were used to smuggle arms to the rebels who control the territory.

"We can find no truth to the allegations [of arms smuggling]," said Bertini.

Another senior U.N. official said it was clear that Khartoum was blocking food aid in an effort to starve the rebels. The United Nations will launch aid flights only with government clearance.

Khartoum's ban, Bertini said, has prevented 80 percent of planned food aid from reaching the beleaguered province, where more than 500,000 people "are now seriously hungry." A further 200,000 outside of Bahr El Ghazal are also affected.

World Food Program warehouses at the major aid station in Lokichokio, Kenya, were fully stocked, but only 2,314 tons of a planned total of 12,000 tons of food -- much of it donated by the United States -- has been flown into the region.

The government, she said, was allowing smaller planes in, but these could carry less and were unable to drop the food aid by parachute, a key method of delivery in the rainy season when TTC planes cannot land on the sodden, dirt runways.

The result: growing malnutrition and disease.

"Among children, we are already seeing stick-like legs, bloated bellies and hair that is taking on the reddish hue indicating serious malnutrition. Staff report people becoming thinner and thinner over a matter of three or four days."

She said the lack of nutrition had so weakened farmers that only between one-third and one-half of cultivated land was planted. People were increasingly collecting wild foods to eat.

"Unfortunately, these foods fail to provide the necessary energy to complete even these activities," she said. "The result of this cruel cycle is that in the absence of emergency food deliveries, many will starve by the end of this year."

The senior U.N. official, who asked not to be named, said that Sudan first made the arms smuggling accusation in February 1995, then withdrew it for lack of evidence. But last June, without any further explanation, it imposed the ban on C-130 flights.

Since then U.N. officials have quietly tried to pressure Sudan into lifting the ban.

Only when it became clear that Khartoum was not willing to allow the aid flights to resume did U.N. officials decide to make their condemnation public. "We usually are able to find some way to get round [such bans]," said Bertini. "We are usually able to use roads or find another way in.

"In this case, there is only one way to provide food, and it is by using these aircraft."

Appealing to the Sudanese government to lift the ban, she said: "Hundreds of thousands of human lives are at stake."

Pub Date: 7/12/96

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