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Attacks force 71 Darfur aid staff to evacuate

Armed men launched a coordinated attack in the South Darfur town, seizing a dozen vehicles and almost paralysing aid operations.

india Updated: Dec 20, 2006 16:11 IST

Attacks on Darfur aid workers' compounds in Gereida town have forced the evacuation of 71 staff and severely restricted humanitarian aid reaching the region's largest population of war victims, officials said on Wednesday.

Around 20 armed men launched a coordinated attack in the South Darfur town on Monday night, seizing a dozen vehicles and communications equipment and almost paralysing aid operations.

It was the biggest single attack on the Darfur aid operation, the world's largest, since it began helping 3 million victims of the conflict in remote western Sudan in early 2004.

It was not clear who carried out the attacks in Gereida, its population swollen by 130,000 refugees from nearby villages.

But the well-organised attackers knew how many vehicles the aid groups had and threatened and harassed staff.

The conflict began when mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms in 2003, accusing Khartoum of marginalising the arid region.

Militia which the international community says the government mobilised to quell the revolt are accused of pillage and murder.

The 71 aid workers were evacuated on Tuesday. The Gereida area is controlled by the one rebel faction that signed a May peace deal with the government.

"It's massive and hugely destructive and has severely disrupted aid operations," said Alun McDonald, spokesman for the British aid organisation Oxfam, which had five vehicles stolen and whose compound was fired on during the attack.

UN humanitarian coordinator Manuel Aranda Da Silva said in a statement: "How can we be expected to carry out humanitarian work without vehicles to get to camps, phones to communicate and the constant threat to their own physical safety?"

Washington has called the conflict genocide, but Sudan denies this, saying it is fighting a guerrilla insurgency.

The International Criminal Court is investigating alleged war crimes in the region, where experts estimate 200,000 have been killed, a figure Khartoum disputes.

More than 400 aid staff have been evacuated in Darfur so far in December because of violence that has severely disrupted aid.

"(Violence) is completely unpredictable, it's pretty much everywhere in Darfur at the moment," said McDonald. Oxfam provides water in Gereida.

More than a dozen aid workers, mostly Sudanese, have been killed in Darfur.

The peace deal reached in May has been rejected by many of the 2.5 million people in camps and by many rebel factions, which formed a new coalition and took up arms against the government again in June.

They say they want more compensation for war victims, political representation and guarantees that pro-government militias will be disbanded.

The conflict has spilled over into neighbouring Chad and the Central African Republic where governments accuse Sudan of supporting insurgents hoping to oust their leaders.