GENEVA: UN officials said Tuesday that one side in the Sudan conflict has seized control of a national health lab in the capital of Khartoum that holds biological material, calling it an “extremely dangerous” development.
The announcement came as officials warned that more refugees could flee Sudan despite a cease-fire between rival forces.
The fighting has plunged Sudan into chaos, pushing the already heavily aid-dependent African nation to the brink of collapse. Before the clashes, the UN estimated that a third of Sudan’s population — or about 16 million people — needed assistance, a figure that is likely to increase.
Dr. Nima Saeed Abid, the World Health Organization’s representative in Sudan, expressed concerns that “one of the fighting parties” — he did not identify which one — had seized control of the central public health laboratory in Khartoum and “kicked out all of the technicians.”
“That is extremely, extremely dangerous because we have polio isolates in the lab. We have measles isolates in the lab. We have cholera isolates in the lab,” he told a UN briefing in Geneva by video call from Port Sudan. “There is a huge biological risk associated with the occupation of the central public health lab in Khartoum by one of the fighting parties.”
The expulsion of technicians and power cuts in Khartoum mean “it is not possible to properly manage the biological materials that are stored in the lab for medical purposes,” WHO said.
The lab is located in central Khartoum, close to flashpoints of the fighting that pits Sudan’s military against the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group that grew out of the notorious Janjaweed militias implicated in atrocities in the Darfur conflict.
Since the outbreak of fighting on April 15, at least 20,000 Sudanese have fled into Chad. Some 4,000 South Sudanese refugees who had been living in Sudan have returned to their home country, UN refugee agency spokeswoman Olga Sarrado said.
The figures could rise, she cautioned. Sarrado did not have numbers for the five other countries neighboring Sudan, but the UNHCR has cited unspecified numbers of those fleeing Sudan arriving in Egypt.
“The fighting looks set to trigger further displacement both within and outside the country,” she said, speaking at a UN briefing in Geneva.
The UNHCR was scaling up its operations, she said, even as foreign governments have raced to evacuate their embassy staff and citizens from Sudan. Many Sudanese have desperately sought ways to escape the chaos, fearing late their all-out battle for power once evacuations are completed.
Several previous cease-fires have failed, although intermittent lulls during the weekend’s major Muslim holiday allowed for dramatic evacuations of hundreds of diplomats, aid workers and other foreigners by air and land.
More than 800,000 South Sudanese refugees live in Sudan, a quarter of them in the capital of Khartoum, where they are directly affected by the fighting. Overall, Sudan hosts 1.1 million refugees, according to the UNHCR. There are also more than 3 million internally displaced persons, mostly in Darfur, a region mired in decades-long conflict, it said.
Along with the refugees, the UN migration agency said there are 300,000 registered migrants, as well as tens of thousands of unregistered migrants in the country.
Marie-Helene Verney, the UNHCR’s chief in South Sudan, said from its capital of Juba that “the planning figure that we have for the most likely scenario is 125,000 returns of South Sudanese refugees into South Sudan, and 45,000 refugees,” Sudanese fleeing the fighting.
The UN Population Fund has said that the fighting threatens tens of thousands of pregnant women, including 24,000 women expected to give birth in the coming weeks. For 219,000 pregnant women across the country it is too dangerous to venture outside their homes to seek urgent care in hospitals and clinics amid the clashes, the agency said.
Dozens of hospitals have shuttered in Khartoum and elsewhere across the country due to the fighting and dwindling medical and fuel supplies, according to the Sudanese Doctors’ Syndicate.
“If the violence does not stop, there is a danger that the health system will collapse,” the UN agency warned Friday.
The International Committee of the Red Cross welcomed the announced cease-fire as a “potential lifesaver for civilians” trapped in their homes in fighting-hit areas.
“It’s clear that this cease-fire must be implemented up and down the chain of command and that it must hold for it to give a real respite to civilians suffering from the fighting,” said Patrick Youssef, ICRC’s regional director for Africa. He called on the international community to help find a “durable political solution to end the bloodshed.”
Spokesman Jens Laerke of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said it has been forced to “reduce our footprint” because of the fighting. He pointed to “acute shortages of food, water, medicines and fuel and limited communications and electricity” and new reports of looting of humanitarian warehouses and aid stockpiles.
“The humanitarian needs in Sudan were already at record levels before this recent eruption of fighting … some 15.8 million people — that’s about a third of the population — required humanitarian assistance,” he said.
Some 3,000 people fled the fighting in Khartoum and took shelter at a refugee camp in the eastern province in Al-Qadarif, further stretching the camp’s resources, Mohammed Mahdi, deputy director for programs at the International Rescue Committee, said Tuesday.
The Tunaydbah refugee camp, he said, houses around 28,000 refugees, mostly Ethiopians who fled a devastating war in Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray in late 2020.
Other aid agencies, including the World Food Program, were forced to suspend or scale down its operations in Sudan following attacks on aid workers and humanitarian compounds and warehouses. At least five aid workers, three from the WFP, have been killed since April 15.
The WFP has said its offices and warehouses in Nyala, the provincial capital of South Darfur, were attacked and looted last week. An ICRC office in Nyala was also looted, and warehouses for the Sudanese Red Crescent in Khartoum were attacked last week by armed men who took several of their vehicles and trucks, the charity said.
Arshad Malik, country director with Save the Children Sudan, urged the warring sides to ensure protection for humanitarian workers to allow resumption of aid flow in Sudan.
“Now we’re seeing more children than ever going hungry. About 12 percent of the country’s 22 million children are going without enough food,” he said.
JUBA, South Sudan: The conflict in Sudan has claimed the lives, limbs and homes of growing numbers of people since it began on April 15. While the world hopes for a peaceful end to the bloodshed, many leaders of Sudanese industries warn that the economic toll of the violence could have a devastating impact on Sudan and internationally.
The once flourishing gum arabic industry in Sudan has become a casualty of the conflict, leaving producers and the local market in dire straits. Now, those who supply soft drink giants such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi have warned that their stockpiles could run out in three to six months if the fighting continues at its current pace.
Gum arabic has dozens of uses. It serves multiple purposes in soft drinks, acting as a stabilizer to prevent flavors, coloring agents and essential oils from separating, and delivering a uniform blend of taste and aroma with every sip.
It also enhances texture and acts as a foam stabilizer, preventing excessive foaming while preventing the drink from going flat. Icings, soft candy, chewing gum and other sweets also use it as an ingredient.
Beyond its applications in food and beverages, gum arabic is used in watercolor paints, ceramic glaze, printmaking, pyrotechnics, glues, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, wine, shoe polish and lickable adhesives for postage stamps and envelopes.
In English-speaking countries, gum arabic is often referred to as gum acacia, reflecting its extraction from acacia trees that thrive in countries like Sudan, Chad, Nigeria, Senegal and Mali. Additionally, Kordofan gum is a variety of gum arabic produced in the Kordofan region of Sudan.
Exports from Darfur and Kordofan via Khartoum, especially of gum arabic, have been severely impacted since the start of the conflict. An estimated 5 million Sudanese — about 11 percent of the country’s population — rely directly or indirectly on income generated from the production of this valuable resource.
Hisham El-Kurdi, who previously implemented a gum harvesting project for smallholders, told Arab News that transportation routes had been disrupted and the capital, which serves as a hub, was embroiled in conflict, posing safety concerns for those trying to move the product.
“The majority of people in rural areas traditionally sell their products to the capital city of Sudan, Khartoum, where traders and businessmen handle the exports to various parts of the world. In the current situation, this process faces significant challenges,” he said.
A natural gum, gum arabic is the exudate of some acacia species, notably acacia Senegal and acacia Seyal, found across Africa’s so-called gum arabic belt.
Gum arabic is one of Sudan’s primary export commodities, linking the country to international markets in Europe, Asia and North America, accounting for an estimated 15% of Sudan’s exports.
There are about 1m households or 5m people who are estimated to be either directly or indirectly dependent on the gum arabic sector.
Producers live in or near gum arabic production areas that include villages and forests and take responsibility for cultivating, tapping, collecting and protecting their acacia trees during harvest months between October and February following the rainy season.
In Sudan, the acacia gum tree thrives naturally in a vast belt stretching 500,000 sq. km — roughly the size of France — from Al-Qadarif to Darfur. Recognizing its resilience in the face of droughts and climate change, international donors and African countries have invested in the Great Green Wall project, which aims to afforest the Sahel strip to combat desertification.
Akol Miyen Kuol, a South Sudanese expert on the region, told Arab News that the ongoing conflict in Sudan between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces would have a negative impact on the world economy due to the widespread use of gum arabic.
“At the local and national levels, if the ongoing war in Sudan doesn’t stop quickly, it will terribly affect those who collect the gum arabic and the general income for the country,” he said.
Daniel Haddad, director of the UK-based trading company Agrigum International Ltd., told Arab News that Sudanese gum arabic was “the gold standard and finds extensive use in soft drinks, pharmaceuticals and various other industries. The significance of Sudan’s production lies in its superior quality.”
“Port Sudan is currently focused solely on humanitarian relief efforts,” he added. “As a result, there are no incoming or outgoing shipments of commercial products and there is a lack of administrative personnel available to handle banking and official paperwork. Consequently, despite the presence of gum arabic in Sudan, there is currently no significant export activity taking place.”
The impact of the fighting in Sudan is poised to wreak havoc as Sudan contributed 66 percent of the global supply of gum arabic, according to a 2018 report by the UN Conference on Trade and Development.
$111m Sudan’s exports, making it the world’s second-largest exporter.
88,000 tons Total export of raw gum in 2021.
80% Sudan’s share of global gum arabic trade between 1950s and early 1990s.
70% Sudanese exporters’ share of global gum arabic supply.
25,000 tons Average annual Sudanese gum arabic exports.
50,000 tons Average amount of exports in the 1950s and 1960s.
$10m Value of FAO-financed Sudan’s forestry project to support gum arabic farmers, protect trees.
“If the situation continues, it will cause concern, but we’re pretty confident something will happen,” Haddad said.
“For each customer, each company, each product, gum arabic has a different use in the application. It could somehow get replaced, but customers don’t like artificial ingredients.”
Sudanese gum arabic, which accounts for 70 percent of the country’s exports, is so critical to the global economy that the US granted an exception for it even amid its embargoes on Sudan.
“I remain optimistic that gum arabic could serve as a catalyst to bring people together and facilitate the resolution of existing problems,” Haddad said.
“By addressing the challenges surrounding gum arabic production and export, it is possible to restore a sense of normalcy.
“This, in turn, would enable the people of Sudan and Khartoum to return to their homes, access essential resources such as food and electricity, and rebuild their lives. It is my sincere hope that such positive developments will unfold and contribute to a return to normalcy for the affected regions.”
RAMALLAH: The Islamic bloc affiliated with Hamas won the Bir Zeit University student council’s annual election on Wednesday, defeating their Fatah-backed rivals.
With a voter turnout of 76.7 percent, the Hamas-backed bloc won 25 seats with 4,481 votes, while the Fatah-supported bloc claimed just 20 seats with 3,539 votes.
The leftist students’ bloc gained 942 votes, winning six seats.
Deep divisions between Fatah and Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were highlighted by harsh criticism of each other’s policies during intense debates on May 23.
Discussion also focused on their programs to serve students.
Bir Zeit University elections have become a barometer of change in Palestinian public political opinion, with Fatah and Hamas fighting fiercely and spending tens of thousands of dollars to fund electoral campaigns despite the financial crisis.
Hamas criticized Fatah over security coordination with Israel, corruption and the poor performance of President Mahmoud Abbas.
Abbas-led Fatah targeted Hamas over its leaders’ stay in five-star hotels in Qatar despite the financial crisis, and called on its rivals to lift the ban on student council elections in universities of the Gaza Strip.
The Islamic bloc has led the student council in recent years, while the Fatah bloc believes it is paying the price for the mistakes of the Palestinian Authority in terms of corruption, nepotism and security coordination with Israel.
Meanwhile, Hamas won elections held at An-Najah National University in Nablus on May 16 by 40-38, a narrow two-seat margin.
Ghassan Al-Khatib, vice president of Bir Zeit University, told Arab News that in the absence of any other poll, the council vote is a reliable indicator of trends in Palestinian public opinion due to “the credibility, integrity and democracy of the elections.”
As a liberal university, “we aim to accustom our students to democratic life, pluralism and accepting other opinions. Therefore, these elections are considered the best practical exercise for democratic competition,” he said.
Al-Khatib added that the debates were more intense this year compared with previous years, highlighting the students’ skills and intelligence.
“This is an essential day for Bir Zeit University, where competition is intense. It is the only place where one sees freedom of political thought,” he said.
Bir Zeit students are free from any job offers that could influence their votes, and take part in the electoral process in a democratic atmosphere and with great integrity, experts say.
Fatah and Hamas make significant efforts to win the elections, which can help them strengthen their political discourse.
Human rights activist Amer Hamdan from Nablus told Arab News that competition between student blocs in the Palestinian universities remains within the university walls, so is a reasonable indicator of the level of support that Palestinian factions enjoy among the public.
Most students followed their family’s political stance when voting in university elections, he said.
Hamdan said Hamas’ Islamic bloc at Bir Zeit benefited from the mistakes of their Fatah-backed rivals in the An-Najah elections a week ago.
Fatah activists fired in the air in front of the campus, and tried to distort the image of Hamas-bloc candidates on social media, supposedly with the help of Palestinian Authority security services.
Bir Zeit University was established in 1973 as a public, nongovernment university. It is considered one of the oldest reputable Palestinian universities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and has produced prominent political leaders in economics and business administration.
The university is the only place in the West Bank that allows Hamas to promote its activities and politics without restrictions from the Palestinian Authority.
Bir Zeit University offers 36 bachelor’s programs in various disciplines, 13 master’s degree programs, and three Ph.D. programs. It employs 450 teachers.
Students from the West Bank and a few hundred Palestinians living in Israel study there.
Most Palestinian leaders are Bir Zeit University graduates.
MUSCAT: Oman’s Sultan Haitham bin Tariq will embark on a two-day visit to Iran this week, Omani state media said Wednesday.
The visit which will kick off on Sunday follows a Chinese-brokered rapprochement deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran announced in March.
“Sultan Haitham bin Tariq will go on an official two-day visit to Iran… in response to an invitation from the Iranian president,” the official Oman News Agency said.
“The visit will also touch on means of promoting cooperation between Oman and Iran in different spheres.”
The visit comes a year after Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited Muscat — a trip that saw the two countries sign a string of trade deals.
Oman has close ties with Iran and played a mediating role between Tehran and Washington in the build-up to a nuclear deal reached in 2015.
Stop-start talks began in April last year to restore the deal, after the US unilaterally withdrew from it in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Iran, prompting Tehran to roll back its commitments.
JERUSALEM: Israel retaliated against shots from fired Syria at a surveillance drone, the Israeli military said in a statement on Wednesday.
“IDF Machine Gun fire was directed toward the originating area of the shots in Syria,” a statement from the military said. “The drone successfully completed its mission and no damage was caused.”
Israel has for years been carrying out attacks against what it has described as Iran-linked targets in Syria, where Tehran’s influence has grown since it began supporting President Bashar Assad in the civil war that started in 2011.
DUBAI: Clashes between rival military factions broke out on Wednesday in Sudan’s capital, residents said, threatening to shatter a fragile cease-fire designed to allow for the delivery of aid and lay the ground for a more lasting truce.
The cease-fire deal, which is being monitored by Saudi Arabia and the United States as well as the warring parties, comes after five weeks of intensive warfare in the capital Khartoum and outbursts of violence in other areas of the country, including the western region of Darfur.
The fighting pits Sudan’s army against the powerful paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and has escalated a humanitarian crisis, forcing over 1.3 million people to flee their homes and threatening to destabilize the wider region.
The cease-fire had brought a relative lull in fighting in Khartoum on Tuesday, although little sign of a rapid scale-up in humanitarian relief.
Witnesses reported clashes in several areas of the capital on Wednesday afternoon.
West of central Khartoum columns of black smoke could be seen rising into the air, and there was shelling near an army camp in southern Khartoum, they said.
In Bahri, one of the three cities around the confluence of the Blue Nile and White Nile rivers that make up Sudan’s greater capital, the sound of clashes and artillery fire could be heard.
Witnesses in Omdurman, the third city, reported that an army fighter plane had been shot down, and videos posted on social media appeared to show the incident. The footage could not immediately be verified.
Earlier, residents reported artillery fire near the Wadi Sayidna military base on the outskirts of Omdurman.
The cease-fire was agreed to on Saturday following talks in Jeddah mediated by Saudi Arabia and the United States. Previous cease-fire announcements have failed to stop the fighting.
Saudi Arabia and the United States late on Tuesday said members of a cease-fire monitoring mechanism that includes representatives of the army and the RSF had undertaken to engage their chains of command about reported truce violations.
In Nyala, the capital of South Darfur State, days of clashes between the army and the RSF had left most of the main market burned down, two residents said.
“We’re in a very difficult situation. We feel emotionally broken and terrified,” said resident Malak Ibrahim, adding that her family hadn’t had water for the past two weeks.
Activists in Zalingei, the capital of Central Darfur State, said RSF-backed militias had surrounded the city and started looting homes and businesses. Zalingei and West Darfur State capital El Geneina, where hundreds have been killed since last month, both appeared to be cut off from phone networks.
The conflict in Sudan erupted as plans for an internationally backed political transition toward elections under a civilian government were set to be finalized, bringing sustained air strikes and ground fighting to the capital for the first time. Many residents are struggling to survive as they face prolonged water and power cuts, a collapse of health services and widespread lawlessness and looting.
The United Nations human rights chief called the situation in Sudan “heartbreaking” and said there were “very deeply troubling” accounts of sexual violence in Khartoum and Darfur with at least 25 cases reported so far and the real number likely much higher.
Aid workers said many of the supplies and staff arriving at Port Sudan on the Red Sea coast have been awaiting security permits and guarantees. Sudan was facing severe humanitarian pressures even before the conflict broke out on April 15.
More than 1 million people have now been displaced within Sudan and 319,000 have fled Sudan to neighboring countries, some of which are similarly impoverished and have a history of internal conflict, according to the International Organization for Migration. Many have crossed into Chad and Egypt in the last few days, Filippo Grandi, head of the UN refugee agency, said on Wednesday.
“Donor contributions to the refugee response plan remain scarce. We need more resources, urgently, to support countries hosting refugees,” he said on Twitter.
The UN says that the number of people requiring aid within Sudan has jumped to 25 million, more than half the population.