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Khartoum - A gunfight outside a police station one year ago on Tuesday marked the start of a war that has forced increasing numbers of hungry people to flee Sudan's South Kordofan and Blue Nile states.
Despite months of international concern over malnutrition and food shortages, the government, citing security factors, continues to tightly control access by foreign aid agencies to the area.
There are no reliable figures on how many people have died in the aerial bombing, shelling and firefights across the region's partly-wooded plains and dry, craggy hills where Khartoum's forces are battling rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N).
But the United Nations has reported a steadily increasing number of residents moving from South Kordofan over the border to the Yida refugee camp in South Sudan's Unity state.
“Throughout the month of May, an average of 430 people per day have been arriving in the settlement, a 47 percent increase on the April arrival rate,” the UN's humanitarian agency OCHA said in its latest weekly bulletin.
“I think that there is a disaster,” said Jonah Leff, of the Small Arms Survey, a Swiss-based independent research project with a focus on Sudan. “It sounds like people there are eating off of trees, eating leaves, and malnutrition rates among children are very high.”
On Monday, the UN refugee agency said 35 000 refugees arrived on foot in South Sudan's Upper Nile state over the past three weeks from Blue Nile, where a war similar to that in South Kordofan began in September.
The new arrivals were in “shockingly bad” condition, said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres.
“Some have been eating tree leaves to survive along the way”, he said.
The Blue Nile conflict intensified in recent weeks after Sudan and South Sudan clashed directly on their disputed border, bringing them close to all-out war.
Sudan accuses South Sudan of supporting the SPLM-N, a charge which foreign analysts believe despite denials by the government in Juba.
Five international aid agencies warned last month in a joint statement that seasonal rains due in Sudan and South Sudan “will exacerbate already dire conditions in refugee camps, restrict travel and access, and heighten the risk of disease”.
The foreign ministry in Khartoum says it has agreed in principle to a proposal made four months ago by the African Union, Arab League and United Nations for aid delivery throughout the war zone.
But the ministry's spokesman Al-Obeid Meruh said a ceasefire must be in place first.
“Then we can have a final agreement about delivering the aid,” he said.
“We keep advocating that we need access,” said UN humanitarian coordinator Ali Al-Za'tari.
He said the UN also advocates the tripartite plan as “a very viable option that can allow humanitarian assistance to go in and be monitored and observed”.
“I don't know for how long the international community is going to wait for the government to sign that document,” said SPLM-N spokesman Arnu Ngutulu Lodi.
“What is happening in the Nuba Mountains is worse than what is happening in Syria,” he said.
Za'tari dismissed as “nonsense” suggestions the UN has not raised a louder voice.
“It's clear that the humanitarian crisis is only getting worse and yet we as the UN and the humanitarian community... are saying next to nothing,” a UN source said, asking for anonymity.
Za'tari said Sudan's minister of social welfare agreed to set up a mechanism bringing international aid organisations together with Sudan's military, humanitarian and other agencies for aid coordination.
Ethnic Nuba of the SPLM-N fought alongside southern rebels during Sudan's 22-year civil war which ended in a 2005 peace deal that paved the way for South Sudan's independence last July.
Fighting erupted in South Kordofan after the SPLM-N alleged fraud in elections and its armed wing was ordered to move into South Sudan.
Lodi said that while the rebels started out “to defend the people of Nuba Mountains”, they now want a “restructuring of the state to allow everybody in Sudan to have equal rights, to have equal opportunity”.
The SPLM-N last year joined insurgents from the Darfur region in a Revolutionary Front to overthrow the Khartoum regime.
Relations between Sudan's centre and its “neglected” periphery - including South Kordofan - need to be addressed more comprehensively by the international community, Leff said.
“The underlying root causes are all very much the same,” he said.
Meruh, of the foreign ministry, said Sudan wants a political solution for South Kordofan.
“But we have to solve the problem that they are using equipment and weapons from South Sudan,” he said. - Sapa-AFP