Sudan must revoke a relief flight ban announced on September 26 to prevent a humanitarian crisis from becoming a famine, Human Rights Watch said today. The ban covers all relief flights and vehicles into southern Sudan from the main relief bases in Kenya and Uganda.

“Barring relief access to more than one million civilians in southern Sudan will surely bring on a catastrophe,” said Jemera Rone, Sudan researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Coming at the same time that the government is stepping up its bombing of civilian areas in southern Sudan, the relief ban heaps one abuse on another.”

The duration of the ban is not clear; one report says it is to last from September 27 until October 6, 2002, others say it is indefinite. The flight and vehicle ban has been placed on Eastern and Western Equatoria, the regions bordering Kenya and Uganda. There is no way to reach the rest of the war-affected areas of southern Sudan from there without flying hundreds of kilometers out of the way—which most relief planes cannot do because they lack the fuel storage capacity.

The government ban on relief flights comes during a period when increased abuses are reported in the civil war in southern Sudan between Sudanese government and the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A).

Aid agencies in southern Sudan have reported that, in September 2002 alone, there has been government bombing affecting civilians in Mundri (11 killed, 10 wounded in a displaced persons camp) and Yei in Western Equatoria; Torit and Kapoeta in Eastern Equatoria; Wunrok (13-year-old boy killed, seven wounded) in Bahr El Ghazal; Atar (nine killed) in Upper Nile; Gar, Kawer and Tanger (Western Upper Nile); Lualdit, Kanawer, Ajajer, Padak and Matiang (three killed) and Lui (13 killed in a cattle camp, including four children), in Jonglei; Ganga in Abyei county (family of six killed). This list does not include all bombing incidents in the war in September, but clearly represents an escalation of aerial bombing.

There have been reports that in September the SPLA attacked villages south of Mayom (three killed) and used a landmine in Thar Jath (four or five killed) in Western Upper Nile, and that the SPLA shelled the town and summarily executed an unknown number of captured soldiers in Torit, Eastern Equatoria.

These abuses have taken place despite the agreement in March 2002 between Sudanese government and the SPLM/A (fostered by U.S. Special Envoy for Peace in Sudan former Senator John Danforth) in which each undertook not to target civilians or civilian objects in the war. In accordance with these agreements, the U.S. government has put in place a Civilian Protection Monitoring Team, based in Khartoum and the southern rebel-held town of Rumbek. The team is charged with investigating military attacks by both sides targeting civilians and other violations of the Geneva Conventions. Both the Sudanese government and the SPLA agreed to permit this team to travel freely in southern Sudan.

“Now is the time for the Civilian Protection Monitoring Team to investigate the continuing abuses by both sides as they wage this war in areas susceptible to famine,” said Rone. “At a minimum they should investigate the reports the staff on the ground have made that civilians were killed or injured in the fighting in September 2002, and the reported abuses by the SPLA in Torit in August-September 2002.”

The government of Sudan walked out of peace talks with the rebels on September 2 in Machakos, Kenya, in protest of the SPLA’s capture of Torit—although at the time there was no ceasefire agreement and the government was attacking and capturing SPLA locations as well. The government has vowed to retake Torit.

“The relief flight ban means that there will be no relief agencies in the south to witness and report on bombings and other attacks while the government is pursuing its offensive,” Rone said.

The United Nations and other agencies based in northern Kenya have some 600 relief personnel in southern Sudan on any one day, and conduct about 20 flights a day into the area. Evacuation of all staff members alone would pose enormous logistical problems under this ban.

The Sudanese government also continues to pursue its military campaign in the southern oilfields of Western Upper Nile, which has displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians since 1999. The food security situation in Western Upper Nile is “precarious,” because of these increasing government attacks on rebels and presumed civilian supporters in the oilfields. The Famine Early Warning System Networks (FEWS Net) estimates that thousands of people displaced by this fighting in 2002 have put recent pressure on host communities in neighboring Bahr El Ghazal and Jonglei areas, the hosts themselves will need assistance because of low grain production, caused by sporadic rainfall.

“This was the recipe for the famine of 1998: massive displacement of civilians by war into areas where food is projected to be scarce, plus a sudden government ban on humanitarian access to the disaster areas,” Rone said.