Sudan: IRIN News Briefs, 24 February

Critical conditions in northern Bahr el Ghazal, Western Upper Nile
WFP on Friday launched a US $58 million international appeal to feed 1.7 million people, the majority of them in southern Sudan, until the end of the year. Despite an improved nutritional situation in the country generally, "hundreds of thousands of southern Sudanese are still at risk of hunger and malnutrition" as a result of war, drought and floods, according to WFP Country Director Mohamed Saleheen. In places where the rains have been ideal for cultivation, insecurity had driven people from their homes and fields, and, where the food needs were greatest, a combination of insecurity and humanitarian flight denials had made it difficult to secure access to populations in need, WFP added.

The situation was most critical in northern Bahr el Ghazal and Western Upper Nile, the agency said. Conditions in Aweil West in northern Bahr el Ghazal were "desperate" and "rapidly worsening" due to a combination of militia raids, internal displacement and exceptional flooding in low-lying areas. Insecurity along the railway line which links the government-held garrisons of Wau and Aweil, was also plaguing people in Aweil West. Latest reports from the field indicated that up to 40,000 people had fled the region to neighbouring Bahr el Ghazal in the past few months, with many eking out a living in malarial swamps east and west of the towns of Koch and Nyal. Some 250,000 people in Western Upper Nile - half the population of the area - would need food aid this year, according to the WFP report. "While conflict continues, conditions for a return to famine remain an ever-present spectre," it added.

Insecurity forces OLS flight suspension

Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) has been forced to suspend humanitarian flights to Western Upper Nile as a result of the constant shifting of political allegiances and consequent insecurity that threatens the lives of humanitarian workers. This was especially so in light of confusion over where former vice-president Riek Machar stands since he tendered his resignation to President Omar al-Bashir last month, an OLS official told IRIN. The flight suspension applies particularly to those areas where OLS deals with the Relief Association of Southern Sudan (RASS), the humanitarian wing of the South Sudan United Movement of militia commander Peter Gadet, whose main operational area is the Bentiu-Mankien-Nyal region of Western Upper Nile.

The WFP/UNICEF barge between Malakal and Juba also remains suspended due to security concerns, and OLS is keenly aware of staff security in the wake of the recent kidnap of four associated personnel. They were released on 10 February at Old Fangak after being held for eight days. A national working for UNICEF, two Kenyans employed as pilots and a Sudanese national working with RASS were released after lengthy negotiations between the militia group, the Sudanese government and UN officials in Sudan. The combination of humanitarian needs and profound insecurity in the face of rapidly shifting power balances between and within the various rebel factions and pro-government militias means that Western Upper Nile is "an area of mounting concern", according to humanitarian sources. The current political and security situation remains "incredibly complex and confused", and is not helped by the numerous militias' jostling for power and control of the area's oil resources, they added.

Talisman escapes sanctions after report linking oil and rights abuses

Human rights activists this week criticised as inadequate the Canadian government's response to a report it had commissioned that linked the oil industry in southern Sudan with human rights abuses. Ottawa commissioned the report under pressure from human rights groups to sanction the Canadian oil company, Talisman Energy Inc, which has a 25 percent interest in the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company (GNPOC), accused of contributing to the war and human rights abuses in Sudan. John Harker, head of a Canadian assessment mission, reported on 14 February that the exploitation of oil resources had become a key issue in the civil war, that the Heglig airstrip in the Talisman concession in Upper Nile had been used by government helicopter gunships and Antonov bombers for attacks on civilian targets, and "mounting evidence that Canadian oil extraction activity is exacerbating the Sudan crisis".

Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy subsequently announced "new Canadian initiatives aimed at bringing peace to Sudan," which included support for a return visit to southern Sudan (currently underway) by UN Special Rapporteur on Sudan Leonard Franco; financial assistance to combat the abduction of women and children; an undertaking to use Canada's presidency of the UN Security Council in April to address the humanitarian impact of the conflict in Sudan; and the opening of a Canadian office in Khartoum to contribute to the peace process and promote respect for human rights. It also "strongly encouraged" Talisman to develop "an effective mechanism for monitoring its operations in Sudan to ensure that they do not lead to an increase in tensions, or otherwise contribute to the ongoing conflict".

Mel Middleton, director of the human rights NGO Freedom Quest International in Calgary, Canada (where Talisman has its headquarters), on Tuesday criticised Axworthy for "back-tracking" on the issue of sanctions. "Axworthy said back in October that if the Harker report found a connection between the oil industry and human rights abuses, and a prolongation of the war, he would impose sanctions. However, he reneged on this and Canada can no longer claim neutrality on this issue," the 'Calgary Herald' quoted Middleton as saying. Talisman, meanwhile, welcomed Axworthy's announcement. Its chief executive Jim Buckee said in a press release that "renewed Canadian commitment to Sudan and the removal of the threat of sanctions are certainly good news for our company and the people of Sudan". He added that Talisman met the highest ethical standards and that his company's stake in GNPOC could serve as a catalyst for peace.

US imposes sanctions on oil consortium

Meanwhile, the US Department of the Treasury announced on 16 February that the GNPOC would be added to its list of companies considered to be owned or controlled by the Sudan government, and to which US sanctions are applied. It did not place sanctions on Talisman directly, or de-list it from the New York Stock Exchange - as had been demanded by human rights groups in the US.

Days of tranquillity allow access to Nuba Mountains for polio campaign

A programme to immunise 77,000 children in the Nuba Mountains region against polio was launched on Wednesday, as part of a national immunisation campaign that started on 17 February and will continue to the end of the month, a UNICEF press release stated. The Nuba Mountains portion of the polio campaign marks the first time in almost 19 years that the UN has gained access to deliver humanitarian relief in this region, contested by the government and rebel SPLM. While UN agencies have conducted two recent assessment missions to the Nuba Mountains, this is the first time that Khartoum has approved the delivery of UN assistance to people living in the SPLM-controlled areas of the region, the statement added. The government and SPLM have agreed on a "window of tranquillity", expected to last until the end of the month.

UN calls on Khartoum to investigate school bombing incident

Olara Otunnu, Special Representative of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan for Children and Armed Conflict, on Tuesday called on all parties to the conflict in Sudan "to take measures to ensure that their forces do not attack civilian populations and sites". The call followed reports that 14 children and a teacher in the Nuba Mountains were killed, and 10 other children injured, when a bomb was dropped from an aircraft close to where lessons were underway. Otunnu also called on the government of Sudan to carry out "an urgent and full investigation" into the incident.

IGAD peace talks resume in Kenya

The Inter-Governmental Authority for Development (IGAD) peace talks on Sudan resumed in Kenya on Tuesday, with the facilitation of Kenyan special envoy Daniel Mboya, and were expected to continue until Saturday. The talks were moved out of the Kenyan capital Nairobi to be held behind closed doors in the central town of Nanyuki, in order to avoid leaks and public statements which had not helped previous rounds of talks, political sources told IRIN on Thursday. The focus of the talks was the separation of state and religion, and the right to self-determination of southern Sudan, they added. Sudanese Vice-President Ali Osman Taha said the government was willing to discuss the issue of separating religion from the state, a matter which in his view would not jeopardise the country's unity, Agence France Presse (AFP) reported on Monday.

Constitutional Court rejects petition against Bashir

The Constitutional Court on Saturday decided to close the constitutional petition filed by some members of the dissolved National Assembly against the 12 December decree by President Omar al-Bashir which declared a state of emergency and dissolved parliament, Sudanese television reported. Al-Bashir dissolved parliament to thwart an attempt by former parliamentary speaker Hassan al-Turabi - with whom he was engaged in a power struggle - to have the assembly limit the president's powers. Constitutional Court judge Jalal Ali Lutfi said on Saturday the president had the right to end the term of the National Assembly "in exercise of the powers given to him by the constitution," the television report said. Lutfi said the court would soon deliver its formal ruling on the constitutional petition and inform all parties of the verdict.


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