updated 12/29/2004 2:31:57 AM ET 2004-12-29T07:31:57

The U.N. World Food Program suspended food convoys to the Darfur region in western Sudan after rebel forces attacked the market town of Ghubaysh and the government retaliated, U.N. humanitarian officials said.

WFP halted three convoys of 70 trucks carrying more than 1,300 tons of food destined for El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur, and Nyala, the capital of South Darfur state, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said Tuesday.

The attack Monday on Ghubaysh in West Kordofan follows weeks of insecurity in Darfur in which both rebel and government-backed forces have attacked each other. It was the second attack by the rebel Sudan Liberation Army since Dec. 19 when the Sudanese government agreed to an immediate cessation of hostilities, U.N. officials said.

The recent insecurity has effectively blocked overland access from central Sudan to the Darfur region for U.N. and other relief agencies, the U.N. Humanitarian office known as OCHA said. As a result, some 260,000 people will miss their December rations in South Darfur as well as eastern parts of West Darfur, it said.

Trucks stolen
The United Nations said it also was concerned about reports that Darfur-based rebel forces have stolen 13 commercial all terrain trucks leased to WFP and loaded with food in the last two weeks.

These thefts are in addition to multiple losses of commercial and aid agency vehicles to armed groups in recent months, OCHA said. More alarming are reports that the rebel group that stole them may now be using some of these trucks for military purposes, it said.

"Such misuses of humanitarian assets should cease immediately," said Jan Pronk, the top U.N. envoy to Sudan.

"All trucks and other equipment taken by armed groups from humanitarian organizations should be returned without delay so that relief operations are not hindered further," he said in a statement.

Stressing that "the problems of Darfur cannot be solved through military means," Pronk urged the parties to the conflict to ensure the safety and well-being of their own people and unhindered access to humanitarian assistance.

The SLA and another rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement, took up arms in February 2003 to fight for more power and resources in Darfur. The Sudanese government responded by backing an Arab militia known as the Janjaweed, which is accused of targeting civilians in a campaign of murder, rape and arson.

Disease and famine have killed 70,000 in Darfur since March, the World Health Organization says, and 1.8 million people have fled their homes.

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