Sudanese air attacks cause controversy

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afrol News, 14 February - The Sudanese government has issued a statement apologising for a bombing raid on civilians collecting food distributed by the UN. The raid, which killed two children, had been strongly protested by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and the US government.

A statement from the Sudanese Foreign Ministry reads; "The Sudan Government would like to express its sorrow over this regrettable incident, which took place as a result of an unintended technical fault," without specifying. This is the first time the Sudanese government apologises for an incident causing civil lives in a civil war killing an estimated two million people, mostly civilians.

Yesterday, the WFP "strongly condemned" the bombing of civilians in the town of Akuem, where the agency had just finished distributing food to 18,000 people suffering from drought and insecurity. "The loss of innocent lives, particularly children, is totally unacceptable," said Abdoulaye Balde, the WFP operations manager for southern Sudan. 

The complaint was reaffirmed by the US government, describing the attack as "horrific and senseless" and claiming that the Khartoum government had broken a recent pledge to stop bombing civilian targets for four weeks. The Sudanese government had promised US envoy John Danforth it would end such bombings.

On Sunday, an aircraft dropped six bombs on Akuem, killing a 12-year-old girl and another child, according to WFP. About a dozen more people were injured. WFP uses the town as a food distribution site, and three of the bombs landed directly on the WFP food drop zone. Just three hours earlier, WFP staff had finished distributing 77 tonnes of food from the site, and had departed to a nearby base. 

- The fact that the incident coincided with humanitarian operations on the ground and endangered potentially a greater number of civilians and relief staff, makes the act even more of a concern, WFP's Mr. Balde said. Sunday's attack is the fourth in drought-stricken Akuem since May 2001. The previous bombardment occurred in November last year, killing a number of people. 

However, the bombing of civilian targets by the Sudanese government seems to have been reduced over the last year. In year 2000, Sudanese government planes bombed civilian and humanitarian targets at least 152 times in southern and central Sudan, according to the US Committee for Refugees (USCR).

According to the US group, "The Sudanese government has deliberately bombed its own citizens during much of the country's 17-year civil war to force populations to flee and to disrupt local economies and international relief efforts." An estimated 4.4 million Sudanese are uprooted by the conflict. 

Sunday's attack was not the first on the UN installations in Akuem. In August 2000, WFP and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) evacuated their operations in southern Sudan after government bombing. This bombing was heavily protested by the international community, which however has kept rather silent on the government bombing of civilian targets where aid agencies not are represented. 

Given the tradition the Sudanese government has in such aerial bombing of civilians, the new global political situation certainly has brought about change in Sudan. At first mentioned a possible destination for US strikes in the "war against terrorism", Sudan has engaged in positive talks with the US and is distancing itself from international terrorism. A formal apology and the promise to US envoy Danforth it would end such bombings are tones previously unheard of from Khartoum.

Sources: Based on WFP, Sudanese and US govt and afrol archives

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