Sudanese government and rebels under fire. Both blamed for not letting aid through to starving southerners

Pressure is building at home and abroad for the Sudanese government to rush food to starving people in its war-torn southern regions. In Wau more than 4,000 destitute and hungry people huddle on verandas, partially exposed to the rains.

Every morning, ``the priests come out and pick up some 20 to 30 dead,'' says a Sudanese relief official, citing details from a recent survey of Wau by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

In Aweil, another southern town, 2,481 persons died of hunger or hunger-related diseases between May 1 and June 26, according to radio reports from there.

In Malakal, a large southern city and main drop-off point for food convoys, relief stocks are likely to run out soon, Sudanese and international relief officials say.

In Torit, some 10 adults and five children are dying of hunger each day, according to Sudanaid, a local group, and Norwegian Church Aid. Rebels recently attacked a food and military convoy en route to Torit from Juba.

All four of these towns are held by the government and caught in the five-year war launched by southern rebels seeking a stronger voice in a unified Sudan.

Both the government and the rebels are being blamed for contributing to the starvation by their action - or inaction.

Some Sudanese church and government officials and Western diplomats are calling for Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi to act quickly to relieve the suffering of an estimated 3.5 million people in need of food assistance.

These officials want prompt approval of an ICRC plan to deliver food to stricken towns in both government- and rebel-held areas. But the ICRC plan has run into a series of snags and objections, especially from the military, that could delay deliveries for months, according to Sudanese and international sources here.

The government and rebels agreed earlier this year that the ICRC would be allowed to assist three towns on each side of the conflict. On the government side, the towns are Wau, Malakal, and Juba. Recently, the commissioner of the southeastern province of Bahr el Ghazal called publicly for the prime minister to allow the ICRC to fly into Aweil to assess the hunger. But Aweil is not one of the three towns agreed upon, and there has been some criticism of the fact that Juba, which gets fairly regular food deliveries, was picked over Aweil, which rarely receives supplies.

According to a source close to the ICRC, high-level military officers now object to the ICRC going ahead with food deliveries to the rebel-held towns, because they say these towns have few civilians and the deliveries would simply help the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA).

One suggestion by some Sudanese and international officials is for the government to allow food convoys to travel without military escort in the war zones. Rebel leader John Garang says any convoy with military elements is a target for the rebels. Sudan, however, continues to insist on military escorts. ``We are expected to deliver [food] to the needy. We cannot send vehicles unguarded,'' a Sudanese official explains.

During the last couple of years, rebel missiles have brought down at least two planes as they approached or departed one of these southern cities. And the SPLA has been attacking food convoys coming by road or by barge. ``The plan of the rebels is to starve people by hitting planes and trains and barges,'' a Sudanese official says.

The Sudan government says it cannot easily get food relief to Wau, Aweil, and Malakal because transport routes are unsafe.

But critics here point out that large military cargo planes, capable of carrying relief food but which apparently do not, regularly fly in and out of both Wau and Aweil.

``This is genocide'' says one Sudanese relief official who, like most others interviewed, asked not to be named. The government, he said, is allowing people in Aweil and Wau to starve because most of the residents in these towns are Dinka, the tribe which forms the backbone of the rebel movement.

``The Army [in these areas] is not starving,'' says one source in Khartoum, adding that the Army is not deliberately trying to starve people but is ``indifferent'' to their plight.

Several Western officials allege that some military personnel are directly or indirectly selling some of the commercial food that has reached those areas in occasional convoys. Military officials could not be reached for comment.

Church leaders in both Aweil and Wau have pleaded with Prime Minister Mahdi for prompt food deliveries.

``The government should assure delivery to those areas,'' says a Western diplomat in Khartoum. And he added that representatives from a number of donor nations ``have gone to the prime minister quite a few times, directly,'' to urge food deliveries.

The prime minister, according to this diplomat, has ``been responsive'' and had to push to accomplish the food deliveries that were already made this year. The prime minister has also just issued an appeal to the UN for emergency assistance to help feed refugees from other countries and displaced Sudanese who have fled drought and fighting.

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