EU considers withdrawing Darfur poll observers

The European Union said on Wednesday said it was considering withdrawing its election observers from Sudan’s Darfur region over fears for their safety and restrictions on their work.

Sudan is days away from presidential, legislative and gubernatorial elections, but opposition parties have said the polls in Darfur will be a farce while a seven-year conflict continues in the region. Some have boycotted the elections fully in north Sudan, also citing fraud.

“We are considering withdrawing the observers (from Darfur),” said Veronique De Keyser, who heads the EU’s election mission in Sudan. “The safety of some of the observers in some remote parts of the country is a very big concern for me. I am also concerned about our ability to observe.”

“In some parts of Darfur the violence is terrible. The humanitarians cannot access this area. And if aid cannot access, we cannot access,” she told reporters as she flew into el-Fasher, the capital of North Darfur, to meet her six-strong team in the remote western region.

“We can only have a very partial view, so how can we observe properly in Darfur? The credibility of the mission is at stake. People have been asking how can you observe in Darfur, and this is a question I have to answer.”

De Keyser said she was particularly worried after Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir threatened to expel international observers who pushed for a delay in the ballot. Bashir has threatened to cut off their fingers and tongues.

“You don’t usually treat international observers you have invited like that. … It doesn’t reflect the traditional hospitality of the Arab world,” she said.

The EU team, which arrived in Darfur in mid March, consists of two observers in each of the three state capitals. Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur, hopes to legitimise his rule with a victory in next week’s polls.

Violence flared in Darfur in 2003 when mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms against Sudan’s government, accusing it of neglecting the development of the region.

The United Nations estimates that up to 300,000 people may have died after the government mounted a counter-insurgency, arming mostly Arab militias. Khartoum rejects the accusation, putting the death count at 10,000.

Rebels and one U.N. official reported continuing clashes in the central Jabel Marra area and other parts of West Darfur last month, saying aid groups and diplomats had been barred from entering the area. Sudan’s army denied serious fighting took place.

South Sudan’s main party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, pulled out of elections in most north Sudan states on Tuesday, citing widespread fraud in the build up to the vote and the insecurity in Darfur.

Other small opposition parties have followed suit but the large Umma party on Wednesday was still discussing how far to follow suit.

De Keyser said it was too early to judge the impact of the withdrawals on the credibility of the elections.


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