(Guardian) - Sudanese troops used force in an effort to relocate hundreds of homeless Darfur families, loading their possessions on to lorries and surrounding them with machine guns mounted on pick-up trucks late on Sunday evening, UN humanitarian officials said yesterday.
The incident, on the outskirts of Otash camp for displaced people near Nyala, affected an estimated 2,000 people, many of whom are still missing.
They were camping in the open after fleeing another camp, Kalma, a few days after their houses were burnt down and up to 17 people were killed by members of a tribe opposed to the Darfur peace talks in Libya. The Guardian spoke to some of the families involved last week.
John Holmes, the UN emergency relief co-ordinator, said in a statement from New York: "It is imperative that any relocation be wholly voluntary, in agreement with the internally displaced. Given that security forces were threatening the displaced with sticks and rubber hoses at Otash camp, the involuntary nature of this relocation is clear, and is contrary to agreements with the government".
A joint UN and African Union team rushed to the scene on Sunday night, but were denied access by a representative of the Sudanese government's Humanitarian Aid Commission.
After entering the area by another route, they saw 10 vehicles with heavy machine-guns surrounding a group of internally displaced people and eight lorries being loaded with possessions. Up to 20 families appear to have been forced into the vehicles, the others ran off.
"A lot of people fled, which is a natural response. We don't know where they are now", said Orla Clinton, a UN spokesperson in Khartoum.
UN protection staff and other aid workers were frantically searching refugee camps in the area yesterday to try to find them, but by mid-afternoon had found nobody.
HAC told the UN that the operation was an initiative of the security forces. Officials said the displaced persons' goods were being kept near one of Nyala's bus stations, where families could go and collect them.
On Sunday, a few hours before the relocation, Mohammed Salih, the senior spokesperson for the governor of South Darfur, told the Guardian: "Otash has some Kalma families and the UN agencies and the government are preparing a new location. Otash is closed. We don't impose any solution that doesn't satisfy the choice of the internally displaced person. Any IDP has to choose for himself", he insisted.
Asked yesterday about the UN accusations that force was used, Mr Salih said: "That's a lie."
"The IDPs are still in Sudan. They're not going to be taken to Chad, or on to Paris", he said, referring to allegations of abduction involving a French charity.