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International Relief Groups Pull Out of Sudan

By Steven Mufson, Washington Post, Tuesday 29 February 2000; A15

About a dozen international relief agencies have begun to pull out of southern Sudan rather than agree to operate under terms imposed by a rebel army, and refugee workers warned that the dispute would endanger hundreds of thousands of people already facing famine.

The Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, which controls much of the region, has been trying to force aid groups to recognize and work with its local organizations. The international agencies say they want to remain independent, fearing for the safety of their workers if they give up neutrality in the civil war between the SPLA in the south and the Sudanese government in the north.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright personally telephoned the SPLA leader, John Garang, on Saturday, and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), a major congressional ally of the southern Sudanese rebels, spoke to him last week. But both failed to persuade Garang to budge from a March 1 deadline his movement set for relief agencies to sign a memorandum of understanding setting conditions on their operations.

The SPLA has threatened to expel relief workers whose agencies refuse to sign, U.S. officials said yesterday.

We feel that our objectivity is at stake here, said Bruce Wilkinson, senior vice president of World Vision, which began withdrawing its staff Thursday.

The dispute comes during a worsening food situation in Sudan, which for about 15 years has been torn by war between the largely Muslim north and the Christian and animist south. On Friday, the U.N. World Food Program appealed for an additional $58 million to feed 1.7 million people in Sudan, primarily in the south. The agency said hundreds of thousands of southern Sudanese are still at risk of hunger and malnutrition and called the situation in some areas desperate. A U.S. official in the region said the number of southern Sudanese refugees in camps in neighboring countries--Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda--had reached 310,000 and was rising rapidly.

World Vision and CARE, both major recipients of funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, are among the groups withdrawing. Others exiting include Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam and Save the Children. U.S. officials said the European Community has warned that it will halt its aid to the region if the SPLA does not drop its ultimatum.

Although 13 aid agencies have refused to sign the memorandum, 26 other groups, such as Catholic Relief Services, have signed the document. U.N. agencies, which were not asked to sign the memorandum, plan to remain.

Negotiations over the memorandum have been going on for months, and State Department officials said yesterday they have become heavily politicized. One U.S. official close to the talks said that southern Sudanese leaders were merely seeking respect and that relief agencies’ complaints were very minor.

But relief organizers said the SPLA was seeking to become a de facto government by forcing aid groups to recognize its sovereignty over the territory.

The agreement is primarily aimed at aligning nongovernment organizations or humanitarian groups with political factions, said Wilkinson of World Vision. We definitely see that as not being the role of a humanitarian aid group. Wilkinson also raised concerns about excessive airport and road fees imposed by the SPLA, and about clauses in the memorandum that could restrict the right of assembly.

Separately, a U.S. government refugee worker complained that SPLA soldiers have stolen food and want to siphon off more aid to raise money for weapons.

An administration official said that Albright, who did not take a strong position about the substance of the dispute in her call to the southern Sudanese leader, was angered by Garang’s intransigence about the deadline. He’s dug in his position and we haven’t seen any evidence of change, said the official. He didn’t win any friends through this exercise.

Earlier, the U.S. special envoy for Sudan, Harry Johnston, met with southern Sudanese leaders in Nairobi and also failed to persuade them to postpone the deadline. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Susan Rice has called Garang twice, to no avail.

We have deplored, and continue to deplore, the decision of Dr. Garang’s . . . movement to expel relief workers from southern Sudan that don’t sign an MOU [memorandum of understanding] by March the 1st, State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said yesterday. We have repeatedly urged Dr. Garang and [his movement] to suspend its March 1st deadline, to reopen negotiations with these nongovernmental organizations.

Food aid to southern Sudan has been the subject of intense debate in Washington for the last four months. Brownback last year introduced an amendment to permit the Clinton administration to provide food aid directly to the SPLA.

But many relief agencies objected to that idea, arguing that food aid groups should remain neutral. U.S. officials said the rebel army’s political wing, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, was angered by criticism from relief groups, which contributed to the impasse over the memorandum.