THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Sudan ordered 10 leading international humanitarian organizations expelled from Darfur on Wednesday after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for the country's president for alleged atrocities in the conflict-ridden region.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the action "represents a serious setback to lifesaving operations in Darfur" and urged Sudan to reverse its decision, U.N. deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe said.
Aid groups protested, saying they had no connection to the court and that their absence could lead to a crisis for more than 2 million war-weary Sudanese who need such basics as shelter, food and clean water.
"It is absurd that we as an independent organization are caught up in a political and judicial process," the operational director of Medecins Sans Frontieres Holland, Arjan Hehenkamp, said in a statement expressing outrage that more than 200,000 of its patients will be left without essential medical care.
Sudan's order was announced after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.
The three-judge panel said there was insufficient evidence to support charges of genocide in a war in which up to 300,000 people have died and 2.7 million have fled their homes.
Al-Bashir's government denounced the warrant as part of a Western conspiracy aimed at destabilizing the vast oil-rich nation south of Egypt.
If al-Bashir is brought to trial and prosecuted, he faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
U.N. will continue to deal with al-Bashir
The U.N., which has a joint peacekeeping mission in Darfur with the African Union, will continue to deal with al-Bashir, U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said at U.N. headquarters in New York.
"President al-Bashir is the head of state of Sudan, and United Nations officials will continue to deal with President al-Bashir when they need to do so," Montas said.
Al-Bashir denies the war crimes accusations and refuses to deal with the court, and there is currently no international mechanism to arrest him. The main tool the court has is diplomatic pressure for countries to hand over suspects.
Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Mohammed Taha confirmed that 10 "associations" were asked to stop operating "because they violated laws and regulations."
Slideshow: Escalation "Whenever an organization takes humanitarian aid as a cover to achieve a political agenda that affects the security of the county and its stability, measures are to be taken by law to protect the country and its interests," he said.
Sudan's U.N. Ambassador Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem Mohamed said "we will deal very clearly with any organization that is violating the hospitality and abuses the laws of the country."
The international aid groups ordered out were Oxfam, CARE, MSF-Holland, Mercy Corps, Save the Children, the Norwegian Refugee Council, the International Rescue Committee, Action Contre la Faim, Solidarites, and CHF International.
U.N. officials said about 76 international non-governmental organizations operate in Darfur, but the 10 aid groups ordered to leave do the lion's share of the work.
The Sudan Media Center said two local organizations, the Khartoum Centre for Human Rights and Environmental Development and the Khartoum Amal Center for the Rehabilitation of the Victims of Violence were also expelled after "evidence has shown the cooperation of those organizations with the ICC through a number of memorandums of understanding between them."
Many Sudanese live in camps
The war in Darfur began in 2003 when rebel groups took up arms against the government, complaining of discrimination and neglect. U.N. officials say up to 300,000 people have died and 2.7 million have fled their homes. Many live in camps which NGOs help run.
Okabe said the international groups were informed by the Sudanese government's Humanitarian Aid Commission that their legal registrations have been revoked, were given a list of assets for seizure and told they must leave north Sudan, which includes Darfur, "with immediate effect."
"Affected NGOs are the main providers of lifesaving humanitarian services, such as water, food, health and sanitation" in the region, she said.
Thierry Laurent-Baden, the head of Action Contre La Faim in Sudan which has a staff of about 900 in Darfur, said the groups ordered to leave are all "major humanitarian actors" in the region.
Their activities cover "a very large spectrum" of emergency services and early recovery work, he said, and "there is lots of fear about the humanitarian impact of this decision."
Laurent-Baden said the heads of the 10 organizations were summoned late Wednesday afternoon — after the announcement of the arrest warrant — and told "all our papers were canceled."
"We still hope something is negotiable," he said. "It is very hard to know."
CARE, which has operated in Sudan for 28 years and has over 650 staff in the country, said in a statement that it received a letter from the government Wednesday canceling its registration to operate in the country and was assessing what it means for the 1.5 million people who now receive food, water, sanitation, livelihood, and health assistance from the organization.
Oxfam appealing order
"If Oxfam's registration is revoked, it will affect more than 600,000 Sudanese people whom we provide with vital humanitarian and development aid, including clean water and sanitation on a daily basis," Penny Lawrence, Oxfam's international director, said in London.
Video: Denial Oxfam said it is appealing the order to leave.
Save the Children UK said it has been helping about 50,000 children affected by the Darfur conflict.
"We don't know what the outcome of these developments will be, but we do know that if we are forced to stop our work, the lives of thousands of children could be at risk," said Ken Caldwell, the charity's director of international operations.
Vanessa Van Schoor, Sudan operations manager for MSF Holland, said the group was told several days ago "to pull out of our field projects" and was then ordered to leave.
The expulsion only applies to the Dutch section of MSF, which had 27 international staff and around 520 national staff in Sudan, Van Schoor said.
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