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US envoy to Sudan pushes for aid in ex-rebel bastion

© AFP / by Jay Deshmukh | Steven Koutsis, the top US envoy in Sudan, disembarks a UN helicopter after landing in the war-torn town of Golo in the thickly forested mountainous area of Jebel Marra in central Darfur on June 19, 2017

GOLO (SUDAN) (AFP) - 

The top US envoy in Sudan pushed Monday for more access to deliver humanitarian aid to Golo as he visited the former rebel stronghold in war-torn Darfur under tight security.

US charge d'affaires Steven Koutsis was in Golo as part of a tour to assess the security situation in Darfur as the United Nations prepares to downsize its 17,000-strong peacekeeping force.

Koutsis' visit to the town surrounded by the thickly forested mountains of Jebel Marra comes weeks before President Donald Trump's administration decides whether to permanently lift a two-decades old US trade embargo on Sudan.

"Golo is a strategic area for providing humanitarian assistance," he told officials and security officers he met in a tightly secured building in Golo, an AFP correspondent reported from the venue.

Khartoum restricts the access of international media to Darfur and particularly to Jebel Marra, which foreign media have been unable to visit for years.

"That is why we are here to understand better what is needed to bring more assistance here."

Aid workers have complained that delivering aid to Golo and other parts of Jebel Marra has been extremely difficult given the mountainous terrain and the severe restrictions imposed by the Sudanese authorities.

Although a relative calm prevails in several parts of Darfur, Jebel Marra saw pitched battles last year between government forces and the rebel Sudan Liberation Army - Abdul Wahid (SLA/AW) group, which Khartoum accuses of ambushing military convoys and attacking civilians.

In September, Amnesty International accused Sudanese forces of carrying out chemical attacks during military operation against the rebel group.

- 'Big assistance' -

Sudanese officials including President Omar al-Bashir have denied these charges.

Tens of thousands of people were displaced in Jebel Marra in last year's fighting, the United Nations says.

Deadly conflict broke out in Darfur in 2003 when ethnic minority groups took up arms against Bashir's Arab-dominated government, which launched a brutal counter-insurgency.

At least 300,000 people have since been killed and 2.5 million displaced in Darfur, the UN says.

Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court on alleged war crimes and genocide charges related to Darfur, which he denies.

On Monday, Koutsis also pushed for a strong presence of UN peacekeeping forces in Golo and other parts of Jebel Marra -- an area where UN forces are still not deployed.

He said that although UNAMID is expected to be restructured, its forces need to be present in Jebel Marra.

"We need to have UNAMID present here... to offer big assistance to the local region," he said.

Access for delivering humanitarian aid and ensuring security in Darfur are key conditions insisted by Washington in order to lift sanctions imposed on Sudan in 1997.

Although Washington believes Khartoum's terror ties have ebbed, it has kept sanctions in place because of the scorched-earth tactics it has used against ethnic minority rebels in Darfur.

by Jay Deshmukh

© 2017 AFP