UN humanitarian chief in Sudan, seeking guarantees on aid

PORT SUDAN, Sudan — The U.N.’s humanitarian chief arrived in Sudan’s main seaport on Wednesday, as thousands of Sudanese and foreign nationals gathered there in hopes of fleeing the conflict-torn east African country.

Martin Griffiths, the under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator at the United Nations, tweeted that he came to affirm the U.N.’s commitment to the Sudanese people. His arrival in Port Sudan on the Red Sea came on the last day of a shaky truce, meant to expire at midnight, which has not quelled the fighting.

There are also increasing concern about the humanitarian situation for those trapped and displaced by the fighting — the result of a power struggle between the country’s two top generals — but questions remain over how U.N. agencies can operate with limited staff and supplies amid the chaos.

More than a week after the brutal fighting erupted in the country’s capital on Khartoum on April 15, thousands of U.N. workers were evacuated in a convoy to Port Sudan. Some U.N. offices paused their services, such as the World Food Program, after three of its workers were killed in fighting in southern Sudan. The WFP has since said it will resume operations.

The battle for control of Sudan erupted after months of escalating tensions between the military, led by Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, and a rival paramilitary group called the Rapid Support Forces, commanded by Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo.

At a virtual news conference from Port Sudan, Griffiths said he is seeking guarantees from the warring sides for the safe passage of humanitarian aid. He addressed criticism that the U.N. had not been doing enough by saying it was “extremely difficult” to work in Sudan.

The U.N. World Food Program reported that 17,000 metric tons of food has been looted, including in Khartoum and western Darfour, out of 80,000 metric tons that the Rome-based agency had in Sudan, U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said.

Even before the fighting erupted last month, a third of Sudan’s population of more than 45 million relied on humanitarian assistance, according to U.N. agencies, which suffered from funding shortfalls.

Six trucks belonging to the World Food Program carrying aid to the western region of Darfur were looted on the road, Griffiths said, and singled out Darfur and Khartoum as badly in need of assistance.

“It’s not as if we’re asking for the moon,” Griffiths said in the online briefing. “We’re asking for the movement of humanitarian supplies and people. We do this in every other country, even without cease-fires.”

The conflict has so far killed 550 people, including civilians, and wounded more than 4,900. The fighting has displaced at least 334,000 people inside Sudan, and sent tens of thousands more to neighboring countries — Egypt, Chad, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Ethiopia, according to U.N. agencies.

More than 42,000 Sudanese who fled the war in their country have crossed into Egypt along with 2,300 foreign nationals since the crisis began, according to the U.N. refugee agency. Aid workers are increasingly concerned about lack of basic services in these areas, and also in Port Sudan, some 830 kilometers (500 miles) from Khartoum.

Many Western countries have completed evacuations for their citizens from the country, with France, Britain and now the United States using Port Sudan as a base for those looking to leave. But citizens of other nations are still struggling to find a way out.

An estimated hundreds of Syrians, who came to Sudan fleeing their own country’s civil war over the past decade, are among the last foreigners to leave.

Tariq Abdel-Hameed, a Syrian in Port Sudan, said a second Damascus-bound flight with a around 200 Syrians mostly pregnant women and sick people, is scheduled to take off from Port Sudan later Wednesday.

He said the first flight landed in the Syrian capital early Wednesday, with some 200 people, including 21 children, on board. He said more flights are scheduled in the coming days.

For thousands of Sudanese and foreigners flocking to Port Sudan, it’s the last stop before leaving the country. Saudi warships have been ferrying mainly foreigners but also dual Sudanese nationals and others across the Red Sea to the Saudi city of Jeddah.

“It feels really sad to be leaving behind a part of your life,” said Saadiya Abdulrahman, a Sudanese-American woman from Khartoum, while waiting with her daughter for their turn to board a Saudi vessel on Tuesday night. When their turn came, the two first boarded a tugboat with dozens of others, to take them to the Saudi ship.

“Khartoum has become like a ghost town in some neighborhoods because of all the destruction,” said Salah Suleiman, a Sudanese from Khartoum who was among those sailing to Jeddah.

For those who can’t afford to leave Khartoum, the most basic goods have become quickly unavailable or unaffordable. Mercy Corps, an aid organization, said Wednesday that prices of basic goods in the city increased 134% on average while fuel prices increased by 1,251%.

On Wednesday, the fighting continued in and around the city. Clouds of smoke were seen over areas of active fighting, and residents hiding in their homes still heard sounds of explosions, with the battles still seemingly centered around key government buildings, such as the Presidential Palace.

There were increasing signs of lawlessness in many of the city’s neighborhoods, with reports that more diplomatic facilities were being targeted. Armed men stormed the building housing the office of Saudi Arabia’s cultural attaché in Sudan, the kingdom said Wednesday.

A statement on the state-run Saudi Press Agency said an armed group “destroyed equipment and cameras, seized some of attaché’s property and disrupted the attaché’s systems and servers.”

Speaking from Kenya, U.N Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the international community needs to come together and put pressure on the warring Sudanese generals to end the conflict.

“All need to use their capacity to put pressure for this horrible and I’d say unjustifiable conflict to stop,” he said. “The present situation is totally unacceptable.”

ElHennawy reported from Cairo, Egypt. Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Evelyne Musambi in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.

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