IN a crisis overshadowed by Somalia and the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, 2.8 million people in southern Sudan caught in the continuing civil war are in need of urgent food relief.
But even as the United Nations pursues a worldwide appeal for funds for the Sudan emergency, assaults on relief workers by rebels in the south have stalled international aid efforts.
Soldiers of one of two breakaway factions of the main rebel group, the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), last week forced Jean Francois Darcq, an employee of the UN World Food Programme (WFP), to strip to his underclothing and run over thorns. He was shot at, according to the UN, but not hit.
Last September, a UNICEF employee, two private relief workers, and a Norwegian journalist were murdered on a dirt road near this remote rebel outpost in southern Sudan.
On Tuesday, a senior SPLA commander in this remote rebel outpost revealed for the first time the results of an SPLA investigation that they say backs their earlier claims that the murders were the work of a splinter rebel group. But UN and private relief officials contacted were not convinced.
"I think that's nonsense," said Richard Venegoni, international relief director for World Vision, which has long operated in southern Sudan. He blamed the murders on the SPLA, whose main faction is headed by Col. John Garang.
"All these incidents make it pretty difficult to continue to be sympathetic and work in the Garang-held area," he said.
Up to 1.7 million southern Sudanese have been displaced by the 10-year-old war, according to the WFP. In this part of southern Sudan, near the Uganda border, more than 100,000 displaced are depending on food aid. But after the murders, the UN and most relief groups pulled out.
As a result, death rates soared in camps for the displaced, according to Sudanese relief workers. A large portion of the children in the camps are malnourished, says Philip O'Brien, head of the UN's "Operation Lifeline Sudan."
There are "screaming humanitarian needs" in this region, he said yesterday. Told of the SPLA's formal denial of any role in the murders, Mr. O'Brien said the SPLA report, when received by the UN, was "going to raise questions."
Meanwhile, the UN is gearing up to go back into this region after an absence of about six months, O'Brien says.
But the frustration, anger, and fear among relief workers remains in the face of the SPLA's denial of responsibility in the murder of the four foreigners: UNICEF's Myint Maung, a Burmese; Wilma Gomez, a Filipino nurse working for the private agency InterAid; Frances Ngure, a Kenyan driver for the UN; and journalist Helge Hummelvoll.
"There's a lot of anger and frustration," says one relief worker. "But I have a feeling they [foreign relief personnel] will keep working on behalf of the [Sudanese] people."
"Its a moral dilemma," says WFP spokeswoman Brenda Barton. "What do we do ... when people are in need, yet [aid workers] are earmarked for death?"
Wearing black boots, a camouflage uniform, and a red beret - and guarded by soldiers with machine guns - Salva Kiir Mayardit, Colonel Garang's chief of staff, said Tuesday that the SPLA's investigation, not yet public, concludes that breakaway leader William Nyuon Bany "is the one responsible for the murder of these people." Mr. Nyuon's intention, Commander Salva said, was to stop relief to the area. He did not explain why the breakaway leader would want to halt relief.
After an investigation of several months, however, British freelance journalist Paul Scanlon, who was in this area at the time of the murders, told the Monitor yesterday: "I am convinced Garang ordered the execution. At best, he was notified and didn't intercede to save them."
Mr. Scanlon bases his conclusion partially on photocopies he has seen of SPLA radio log entries at the time, seized by Nyuon, which indicate that the SPLA intended to kill two captives. Apparently the first two of the four were shot at a roadblock where SPLA forces ambushed troops loyal to Nyoun.
If it did commit the first two murders, the SPLA may have wanted to cover its tracks by eliminating the captive witnesses, according to Scanlon and several private relief officials who requested anonymity.