UNITED NATIONS – Sudan ordered at least 10 humanitarian groups expelled from Darfur on Wednesday after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for the country's president.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the action "represents a serious setback to lifesaving operations in Darfur" and urged Sudan to reverse its decision, U.N. deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe said.
Aid groups protested, saying they had no connection to the court and that their absence could lead to a crisis for for more than 2 million of war-weary Sudanese who need such basics as shelter, food and clean water.
"It is absurd that we as an independent organization are caught up in a political and judicial process," the operational director of Medecins Sans Frontieres Holland, Arjan Hehenkamp, said in a statement expressing outrage that more than 200,000 of its patients will be left without essential medical care.
Sudan's order was announced after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.
Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Mohammed Taha confirmed that 10 "associations" were asked to stop operating "because they violated laws and regulations."
"Whenever an organization takes humanitarian aid as a cover to achieve a political agenda that affects the security of the county and its stability, measures are to be taken by law to protect the country and its interests," he said.
The non-governmental aid groups ordered out were Oxfam, CARE, MSF-Holland, Mercy Corps, Save the Children, the Norweigan Refugee Council, the International Rescue Committee, Action Contre la Faim, Solidarites and CHF International.
The Sudan Media Center said two Sudanese organizations, the Khartoum Centre for Human Rights and Environmental Development and the Khartoum Amal Center for the Rehabilitation of the Victims of Violence, were also expelled, saying they cooperated with the court.
U.N. officials said about 76 international groups had been operating in Darfur, but the 10 aid groups ordered to leave did most of the work.
Okabe said the groups were informed by the Sudanese government's Humanitarian Aid Commission that their legal registrations have been revoked, were given a list of assets for seizure and told they must leave north Sudan, which includes Darfur, "with immediate effect."
"Affected NGOs are the main providers of lifesaving humanitarian services, such as water, food, health and sanitation" in the region, she said.
The war in Darfur began in 2003 when rebel groups took up arms against the government, complaining of discrimination and neglect. U.N. officials say up to 300,000 people have died and 2.7 million have fled their homes. Many live in camps which NGOs help run.
"If Oxfam's registration is revoked, it will affect more than 600,000 Sudanese people whom we provide with vital humanitarian and development aid, including clean water and sanitation on a daily basis," Penny Lawrence, Oxfam's international director, said in London. Oxfam said it is appealing the order to leave.
Save the Children UK said it is helping about 50,000 children affected by the Darfur conflict.
"We don't know what the outcome of these developments will be, but we do know that if we are forced to stop our work, the lives of thousands of children could be at risk," said Ken Caldwell, the charity's director of international operations.
CARE, which has operated in Sudan for 28 years and has more than 650 staff in the country, said in a statement that it was providing 1.5 million people with food, water, sanitation, livelihood, and health assistance.
The International Rescue Committee said the directive shuts down the organization's medical care, water, sanitation and education programs and other vital services for some 650,000 people in Darfur and a further 1.1 million people in north and east Sudan.
Vanessa Van Schoor, Sudan operations manager for MSF Holland, said the group was told several days ago "to pull out of our field projects."
The expulsion only applies to the Dutch section of MSF, which had 27 international staff and around 520 national staff in Sudan, Van Schoor said.
It was not clear whether those terms apply to the other aid groups told to leave Sudan.
Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb in Khartoum, Eliane Engeler in Geneva and Jennifer Quinn in London contributed to this report.
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