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WFP says attacks on food trucks in Darfur build a climate of fear

KHARTOUM - Shootings, attacks on drivers and thefts of WFP-contracted trucks carrying critically needed food aid are part of a rapidly deteriorating security situation in the Darfur region of western Sudan. The incidents are seriously threatening the ability of the United Nations World Food Programme to assist millions of people -- at a time when needs are increasing daily.

"The security situation is so bad that many drivers are now refusing to move through sections of the road corridors to the three Darfur states," said Ramiro Lopes da Silva, WFP Sudan Country Director.

A driver of a WFP-contracted truck was shot dead in a raid in January. Drivers have been taken hostage, and two are still missing. This month alone, a driver was shot and wounded, another had his hands broken, and others were severely beaten. A total of 13 WFP-contracted trucks are still missing after a string of raids; eight of these are known to be held by the Sudan Liberation Army. (See list of recent incidents below.)

"These attacks are completely unconscionable. They create a climate of fear that together with truck seizures pose a real threat to our ability to deliver food to the Darfurs," said Lopes da Silva.

WFP is however pushing ahead with deliveries in a bid to reach rising numbers of people in need and to preposition supplies before the rainy season cuts off access to many areas. Approximately 50,000 metric tons of food were moved this month alone.

It is estimated that a monthly average of 2.3 million people will need food assistance in the Darfurs over 2005, rising to 2.8 million during the rainy season months. There are concerns that a poor harvest in 2004 and rising prices for basic commodities will push numbers even higher. In February, WFP fed 1.6 million people in Darfur, the highest monthly total since its emergency operation began in April 2004.

The drivers of WFP-contracted trucks are vital to achieving such targets. While accustomed to a certain degree of risk in the region, they nevertheless halted a 37-truck convoy in Ed-Daien last week, because it was just too dangerous to leave.

WFP has protested about the attacks in the strongest terms, both as WFP, and through the African Union and the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative, Jan Pronk, who has raised the issue with SLA representatives. "These attacks must stop, and the trucks must be returned it is as simple as that," Lopes da Silva said.

The banditry is part of growing insecurity across Darfur that has seen attacks on humanitarian teams from WFP partner organisations. The Danish Refugee Council has temporarily withdrawn from the Jebel Marra region after two of its aid workers were abducted from a vehicle on 20 March. The two were released, but the vehicle is still missing.

In West Darfur, areas to the north of the capital of El-Geneina remain "no go" for United Nations agencies, although security restrictions on some other areas have been lifted. On 11 March, WFP staff and other UN and non-governmental organization personnel were pulled back to the state capital, following three days of attacks by armed bandits on clearly marked humanitarian vehicles. The attacks and the impact on relief operations have been raised with local authorities in West Darfur.

"We are doing everything we can to get food to those who need it," said Ramiro Lopes da Silva. "But banditry, conflict and insecurity make this an uphill battle."

. On 21 March, the drivers of seven WFP-contracted trucks travelling between El-Obeid and El-Fasher were beaten and one man¡¦s hands were broken, in Burush in North Darfur. WFP food was looted and the drivers¡¦ belongings were stolen. The following day, four men driving WFP-contracted trucks on the same route refused to move forward for fear of similar attacks.
. On 14 March, a WFP-contracted truck in South Darfur was stopped by five armed men, who shot at the driver and beat him, before stealing his personal belongings. He was treated in Nyala for a gunshot wound to the head.
. On 7 March, in North Darfur a total of 12 WFP-contracted trucks were stolen in a series of attacks. A driver was shot and wounded, and five drivers and a convoy leader were taken hostage.
. On 6 January, in West Darfur, the driver of a WFP-contracted truck was shot dead in an attack south east of El-Geneina. Two passengers were also shot and wounded, one seriously.

WFP is the world's largest humanitarian agency; each year, WFP provides food aid to an average of 90 million people, including 56 million hungry children, in more than 80 countries.

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Christiane Berthiaume
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Trevor Rowe
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