The United Nations (UN) World Food Programme (WFP) raised concerns about a dramatic escalation in attacks on food aid convoys by armed bandits in the Darfur region of Sudan. WFP says the attacks constrain its ability to feed the more than two million people in the area receiving aid.
Negotiations over a UN Security Council resolution authorising a joint UN-African Union security force for the region continue but full deployment could take upto a year.
"In the last two weeks, nine food convoys have been attacked by gunmen across Darfur," said Kenro Oshidari, WFP Sudan Representative. "WFP staff and contractors are being stopped at gunpoint, dragged out of their vehicles and robbed with alarming frequency," he said.
"These abhorrent attacks, which target the very people who are trying to help the most vulnerable in Darfur, must be brought under control," he added.
A WFP official told Wikinews that the attacks and robberies have occurred in all regions of Darfur, and that the blame can't be ascribed to a particular group. "Frequently the bandits are wearing uniforms but often in one group of bandits there may be more than one uniform. Thus, we are not pointing fingers at any one group." said Emilia Casella, WFP Spokesperson for Sudan. "We are calling on all parties to respect the neutrality of humanitarian convoys and their drivers, who are delivering food to civilians who are victims of the conflict."According to WFP, in 2007 so far, 18 WFP convoys have been attacked - "shot at, looted, drivers robbed and/or injured". Four vehicles were stopped and the drivers and passengers robbed. Six vehicles were stolen, where the gunmen drove away with the WFP staff members still inside, though they were later released. "There were no major physical injuries, but naturally such experiences are very traumatic," said Casella. "These incidents have occurred in all three of the Darfurs, in areas controlled by various groups or the government."
In the week of July 15-21, there were five incidents in South Darfur, during which a total of seven trucks were looted of approximately 10.5 tonnes of food assistance.
The Darfur operation is the WFP's largest humanitarian mission, with about 790 staff working to feed more than two million people every month. are hired to .
The WFP indicated that it has been difficult to hire and retain the commercial trucking companies used to move food and supplies throughout the region due to the risks involved in the service. WFP Public Affairs Officer in Washington D.C. Jennifer Parmelee told Wikinews that "hiring reliable transport in other insecure environments, [such as] Afghanistan and Somalia, is extremely challenging."
Air service is employed for remote locations and where delivery by road has become too dangerous.
Parmelee told Wikinews that the "increasing insecurity will almost certainly further constrain [WFP's] ability to operate in Darfur - it already has." WFP Spokesperson for Sudan, Emilia Casella, indicated that "humanitarian access is likely to be increasingly difficult due to insecurity." However, the situation has not prevented all aid delivery. "Despite insecurity and access problems, WFP food assistance reached about 2.6 million people in Darfur last month," said Casella.
Possible assistance from proposed AU/UN hybrid force
A UN resolution on the deployment of a hybrid African Union (AU) and UN force of 26,000 troops is working its way through the UN. Britain and France presented revisions to the draft, which dropped a threat of "further measures" against Sudan for obstructing peace efforts, though Sudan's ambassador, Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem, has objected to the revisions.
A deadline of December 31 exists to transfer authority in Sudan's Darfur region from the AU to the proposed AU-UN force. Full deployment of all 26,000 troops would take up to one year.
The draft resolution would allow the use of force to protect the mission's personnel and humanitarian workers and would "protect civilians under threat of physical violence".
Jennifer Parmelee of the WFP suggests that the deployment of the hybrid force under such a mandate would be a positive development in the aid agency's ability to carry out their humanitarian assistance. "Sure an expanded AU/UN peacekeeping force would help." said Parmelee. "As it is, AU is stretched very very thin, and...is unable to accompany most of our convoys."
According to WFP, there are approximately 12,000 humanitarian workers in Darfur, which is a drop in numbers even though the need for aid workers has increased.