ABECHE, Chad - Sudan and the United Nations signed an agreement yesterday to guarantee humanitarian access to refugees in Darfur, where violence and government restrictions have prevented aid from reaching victims of a bloody conflict.
The agreement ensures unrestricted travel by international aid workers throughout Sudan, including Darfur, so long as the central government is notified of plans.
"I am cautiously pleased that this agreement has been signed and publicized," U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes said while touring camps for Darfur refugees in neighboring Chad. The "important thing is whether they will actually implement what they say."
Last week, Holmes warned that obstruction from Sudan's government and insecurity had created a fragile environment in Darfur that could prompt aid workers to pull out. Sudanese troops last week barred Holmes from visiting a refugee camp in Darfur, although the government later apologized and allowed him to tour camps.
Despite the sign of cooperation on the humanitarian front, Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed al-Bashir remained firm in his refusal to allow U.N. peacekeepers in Darfur.
At an Arab summit in the Saudi capital, Bashir insisted that the United Nations should provide only financial and technical help to about 7,000 African Union peacekeepers who have been unable to end Darfur's escalating violence.
Bashir said a U.N. plan to deploy a 20,000-member joint AU-U.N. peacekeeping force would violate Sudan's sovereignty and "provoke the conflict in Darfur, instead of finding a solution for it."
"We assure you that we do not desire a confrontation with the international community," Bashir said, "but what we are seeking is to keep the African color of the forces in Darfur according to the shape and leadership, but on condition that the U.N. will take over the financial, technical and logistic support for those forces."
More than 200,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million driven from their homes in Darfur since ethnic African fighters took up arms four years ago, complaining of neglect and discrimination from Sudan's Arab-dominated government.
The United Nations says the conflict has chased an additional 86,000 people from their homes this year and attributes the vast majority of these new refugees to violence perpetrated by Sudanese government forces or their allied Janjaweed militias.
About four million people caught in the fighting are in need of aid.
Holmes said the most important aspect of the new deal was a monitoring committee to be jointly chaired by the Sudanese minister of humanitarian affairs and the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Sudan.
The panel will fast-track visa procedures for Darfur-bound aid workers and process applications for work permits within 15 days and visas within two days. Applications are backlogged until January 2008. The committee will have representatives from international and national aid groups, the Arab League and foreign donors.