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Millions of Darfuris at greater risk with aid groups' removal

But the expulsion of 13 aid groups from Sudan is more than a humanitarian crisis. It may reignite regional conflicts in the country – and beyond, say analysts.

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Many analysts are watching the Abyei region, and the Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states, along the border between Northern and Southern Sudan. These three areas were given special status in the north-south peace agreement as "transitional areas," contested by both sides. Abyei – an oil-rich area that saw some of the heaviest fighting in the civil war – is of particular concern.

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In May 2008, a firefight between Northern and Southern armies killed 89 people, sent 50,000 fleeing, and burned the town to the ground. In December, another death occurred after shooting broke out between military and police, sending thousands fleeing again. And now, the expulsion of the biggest aid groups threatens to bring conflict back to Abyei.

"There could be very dire consequences in the political situation in the three areas," Ms. Pantuliano says.

Analysts have been warning for months that Southern Kordofan, the most volatile of the states straddling the border, needs immediate attention. Now the little attention it was receiving from NGOs will all but disappear. Communities that were already complaining of a lack of peace dividends will now have to search harder to find them.

"If people are in need and there's nothing that can support them, you definitely expect some unrest," says Abyei native Deng Alor, a former Southern rebel who now serves as Sudan's foreign minister.

By digging bore holes, building roads, and supporting livelihoods, the NGOs were increasing communities' access to otherwise limited and contested resources.

"There will be some shortage of everything. And as the shortage comes, people will, as usual, be in quarrel with one another and this will bring clashes between the people," says Kuol Deng, a chief of the Dinka tribe, reached by phone. "This is really a very terrible situation."

A lack of water and grazing lands has historically caused conflict between the Dinka, who supported the Southern rebels during the war, and another tribe, the Misseriya, who were aligned with the Northern government.

Observers say this expulsion of aid workers could bring conflict on more than one front. Darfur's most powerful rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), has, for months, been threatening to attack the government to capture Bashir and hand him over to the ICC to face trial. The expulsion of NGOs could also bolster JEM's numbers, as they will have an easier time recruiting from the camps.

Darfur's limited peace process, which just last month had seen a rare sign of progress, may also be in jeopardy. JEM sees the expulsions as a move to "starve the population" and a violation of a goodwill agreement signed with the government in February, committing both parties to the unobstructed flow of relief to Darfur. This perceived violation, JEM says, is reason enough to stop any further peace talks.

"We have already signed an agreement. If that agreement is not implemented, then we are not going sign a new one," says Gebreil Ibrahim, JEM's economic adviser and brother of the group's leader, Khalil Ibrahim.