Sudan defends expulsion of UN official

Other News Materials 9 November 2007 04:59 (UTC +04:00)

( AP ) - The U.N. humanitarian director was ordered to leave south Darfur because he was discouraging civilians displaced by violence from returning to their villages, Sudan's justice minister said Thursday.

Justice Minister Mohamed Ali al-Mardi praised the decision by the governor of south Darfur to expel Wael Al-Haj Ibrahim, saying there was sufficient evidence that the U.N. official was urging civilians to stay in refugee camps.

"State authorities were left with no other alternative but to take that decision so as to preserve the independence of Sudan," al-Mardi was quoted as saying by the state news agency SUNA.

The justice minister said Ibrahim was warned three times not to discourage the return of displaced civilians but did so anyway. He said Ibrahim also told Darfurians who had gone back to their villages that they should return to the camps.

Ibrahim, a Canadian, is the south Darfur director of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, known as OCHA. The U.N. announced his expulsion Wednesday.

U.N. deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe said the order was a serious concern because OCHA, "plays a pivotal role in South Darfur." OCHA spokeswoman Stephanie Bunker said the matter was being taken up with the central government.

But al-Mardi's comments Thursday indicated the governor had Khartoum's support.

Sudan's government has stepped up pressure on Darfurians to leave refugee camps. Sudanese officials insist they are not forcing anyone to leave, but want to encourage refugees to return to their villages because the camps have become too big, squalid and dangerous.

But late last month, U.N. officials said they had evidence that Sudanese government forces were chasing the refugees out of at least one camp, Otash, home to 60,000 people on the outskirts of Nyala.

The Aegis Trust, a British-based organization which works to prevent genocide and has offices in Africa, said the U.N. was warned by the governor last week that if U.N. officials opposed the dismantling of camps, he would ensure that those officials were expelled.

James Smith, the Aegis Trust's chief executive, said Wednesday that Ibrahim "was forced out essentially because he did his job so well."

Violence erupted in the western Sudanese region in early 2003 when rebels from Darfur's ethnic African majority took up arms against the Arab-dominated government.

Sudan is accused of retaliating by arming Arab militias known as the janjaweed blamed for widespread atrocities against civilians. The government denies the accusations.

More than 200,000 people have been killed in the violence, and an estimated 2.5 million civilians have fled to refugee camps in Darfur and neighboring countries.