Page last updated at 12:31 GMT, Friday, 8 May 2009 13:31 UK

Sudan opens up to more aid groups

Displaced Sudanese women in Darfur, March 2009
The UN says the Darfur conflict has driven 2.7 million from their homes

Sudan's government says it will invite new aid groups to work in Darfur and allow those still operating there to expand their activities.

The UN's head of humanitarian affairs welcomed the move.

Sudan expelled 13 foreign aid groups in March after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.

Meanwhile, the backer of a conference on Darfur says it has been cancelled because of opposition from Sudan.

It was intended to bring together some 400 people from Darfur's diverse ethnic groups in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

Pro-government groups as well as those close to Darfuri rebels were included.

Funded by Sudanese expatriate and telecoms entrepreneur Mo Ibrahim, it also had the backing of the UN, the African Union and the Arab League.

"The Sudanese government is obstructing the safe passage of Darfurian delegates from Sudan, forcing us to cancel the conference," his foundation said.

Mr Ibrahim told the BBC delegates had being harassed, their passports withdrawn and that some had been warned they were engaging in activities against the state.

BBC Africa analyst Martin Plaut says work to prepare for the conference has been under way for nearly a year, and UN planes and helicopters had been on standby to help airlift the delegates to Ethiopia.

The UN says that up to 300,000 people have died during the conflict in Darfur and 2.7 million been driven from their homes.

Easing travel restrictions

Sudan had agreed last month to allow some aid back into Darfur following its expulsion of humanitarian groups.

UN humanitarian chief John Holmes: 'We have had a good discussion'

On Thursday, the minister for humanitarian assistance, Haroun Lual Ruun, said Khartoum would invite new non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to Darfur.

He also said it would allow those UN agencies and NGOs remaining in the Sudanese region to "expand their existing operations".

"We have also agreed to further improve the NGOs operating environment by easing travel and visas restrictions, by reviewing the need for individual technical agreements for NGOs," he said.

He was speaking during a visit to Sudan by UN humanitarian chief John Holmes and US envoy to Sudan Scott Gration.

Mr Holmes said he would prefer the expulsion decision to be revoked.

But he also said that if trust was restored between the humanitarian community and Sudanese authorities, capacity lost after the expulsions could be recovered.

"I think what we're hearing... is that new NGOs with new names, new logos, if necessary, can come in," he was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency.

"That means there's an opportunity to exploit some of that expertise and experience that is there and I think that is a welcome degree of flexibility about how it might happen in the future."

Minister moved

Meanwhile, the African Union's outgoing chairman, Ghanaian President John Atta Mills, has said the organisation is not turning a blind eye to Darfur.

Omar al-Bashir: President: Indicted March 2009
Ahmed Haroun: Minister responsible for Darfur in 2003 and 2004: Indicted May 2007
Ali Muhammad Ali Abd al-Rahman, also called Ali Kushayb: Pro-government militia leader in Darfur: Indicted May 2007

He told the BBC the AU had asked for a suspension of the arrest warrant issued by the ICC for Mr Bashir, as this was more likely to bring an end to the fighting by allowing the government and Darfur rebels to come to the negotiating table.

Mr Bashir is accused by ICC prosecutors of orchestrating atrocities against civilians in Darfur, where his government has been fighting rebels since 2003.

He has dismissed the ICC's charges as a "neo-colonialist plot".

On Thursday, Mr Bashir dropped his humanitarian affairs minister, Ahmed Haroun - also wanted by the ICC for alleged war crimes in Darfur - from his cabinet.

He has been appointed governor of a sensitive southern province, South Kordofan, where long-running disputes threaten the 2005 peace deal between the north and the south.

Mr Haroun was the first Sudanese official to be indicted by the ICC, in 2007, and there has been Arab and international pressure to remove him from office.

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