UN envoy in Khartoum to discuss humanitarian access

UN Special Envoy Tom Eric Vraalsen was on Thursday scheduled to arrive in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, to follow up on the promise made earlier this week by the authorities to grant humanitarian access to millions of war-affected civilians in the western part of the country.

President Umar Hasan al-Bashir on Monday formally declared that his government had defeated rebels in Darfur, pledging to open up immediate humanitarian access to the region. The main Darfur-based rebel groups, the Justice and Equality Movement and the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army, subsequently dismissed the government's claim of victory.

In a statement, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) described this new development as a "breakthrough", following months during which agencies had been prevented from reaching large numbers of displaced civilians caught up in what was seen as one of the worst emergencies in Africa.

"The humanitarian community has been largely unable to assist IDPs [internally displaced persons] in Darfur, because they have been prevented from delivering adequate aid up to now," OCHA said. "Nearly 3 million people affected by the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region have remained beyond the reach of aid agencies trying to provide essential humanitarian aid," it added.

Vraalsen's visit to Khartoum is aimed, among other things, at discussing with the authorities the possibilities of putting in place an "all-inclusive" humanitarian ceasefire for Darfur thereby to allow relief agencies sustained and unimpeded access to the region's vulnerable population", OCHA said.

An estimated 700,000 people have been displaced in Darfur, and up to 135,000 have fled to neighbouring Chad, following an escalation of fighting between the government and Darfur-based rebel groups in the past few months, according to humanitarian agencies.

Thousands of people were still fleeing for their lives from militias and aerial bombardments in western Darfur, despite claims by the government this week that the war is over, sources told IRIN.