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U.N. Reducing Aid Flights In Darfur for Lack of Funds

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 11, 2008

NAIROBI, June 10 -- Humanitarian flights that deliver doctors, aid workers and supplies to remote areas of Sudan's western Darfur region are being cut back because of lack of funding, the U.N. World Food Program said Tuesday.

With banditry on Darfur's roads on the rise in the past year, aid groups have increasingly relied on helicopters and other flights to gain access to the region, where an estimated 2.5 million people are displaced because of conflict.

The air transport is provided by the U.N. Humanitarian Air Service. But funding for the service, which costs about $77 million a year, has become tenuous as the conflict has dragged into its sixth year.

On Tuesday, the air service grounded one of its six helicopters and reduced the number of flights because of lack of funds.

The United Nations said the air service -- a fleet of 20 planes and six helicopters -- needs an infusion of $20 million by Sunday to maintain full service in the next few months. The program has a total budget shortfall of $48 million this year, U.N. officials said.

"People are weary," said Laurent Bukera, head of the North Darfur Area Office for the World Food Program, referring to donors. "After so many years, people think that this service is a given. I find this really worrying that we have to wait until the last minute" to scramble for funds.

About 14,000 aid workers are in Darfur, which is home to the largest humanitarian relief effort in the world. Bukera said the loss of one helicopter immediately translates into hundreds of aid workers being grounded.

Experts estimate that as many as 450,000 people have died during the conflict in Darfur, in which the Sudanese government and its allied militias have waged a brutal campaign to crush rebels who complained of economic and social injustice. But the nature of the insecurity in Darfur has shifted, with the fractious rebels and government militias turning to carjacking and other banditry to support their causes.

Their main target: aid groups, whose Toyota Land Cruisers and trucks are routinely hijacked, sold for cash or modified into battlewagons. As a result, relief groups are relying more on air transport to reach displaced people and others struggling to maintain life in rural villages.

Of the $13.2 million that donors have contributed to the air service so far this year, the United States has provided $3.25 million. The air service also charges nominal fees to users.

Saudi Arabia recently donated $500 million to the World Food Program to help cover rising food and fuel costs, but program officials said fundraising for the air service in Sudan is separate.

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