Relations "strained", Sudan says

Sudan has described relations with Eritrea as strained, after Khartoum closed the common border following an attack in the east last week by forces of the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) movement.

The Sudanese government has accused Eritrea of involvement in the attack, charges which Asmara has vigorously denied. The Eritrea-based NDA - of which the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) is the main component - confirmed it had captured the religiously significant town of Hamashkoreb in Kassala state.

Sudan's charge d'affaires to Kenya, Muhammad Ahmad Dirdeiry, told IRIN on Tuesday the border had been closed, but that diplomatic relations with Eritrea, "although strained", would be maintained during the period of the border closure.

Dirdeiry also said the border closure would not affect an ongoing exercise to repatriate tens of thousands of Eritrean refugees from camps in Sudan. The UN refugee agency UNHCR says the repatriations - which were due to resume at the weekend after a temporary suspension caused by the rainy season - have been put on hold in view of the fighting. There are still some 90,000 refugees in the Sudanese camps.

However, Dirdeiry claimed the repatriations would continue "unless the refugees themselves decide to remain in Sudan".

"The border has been closed. That of course is an ordinary measure in such situations. UNHCR operations are not affected by this," Dirdeiry said.

UNHCR spokesman Jonathan Clayton said clarification would have to be sought from the Sudanese government. "While the border is closed, one would assume the refugees cannot cross," he told IRIN on Tuesday.

The Sudanese government has now lifted restrictions on the movement of UNHCR staff in eastern Sudan and registrations for repatriation have resumed. Khartoum has also ordered the expulsion of 10 Eritrean government officials working alongside UNHCR on information campaigns in the refugee camps.