By Opheera McDoom Thu May 18, 5:15 AM ET
KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudan has tightened restrictions on foreign press traveling to Darfur and has not issued any travel permits to its violent western region since a peace deal was signed earlier this month.
Experts who have watched Darfur since the conflict erupted in early 2003 say this is the most restrictive the government has been on access since the height of the conflict in 2004.
U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland called on the government to allow press access to Darfur especially as donors have been slow to respond to the crisis this year, forcing food rations to be halved in May.
"It is vital for journalists to be given full access to Darfur ... to cover the humanitarian work and explain the urgent need for additional international support," he said.
During the height of the Darfur conflict, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives and forced 2 million people from their homes, journalists were made to wait weeks in Khartoum for travel permits to the remote west.
In 2003 and early 2004 many resorted to sneaking across the porous border with Chad to expose the misery of the people suffering what the
United Nations called the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
But the government eased access to Darfur and began issuing travel permits within two to three days for visiting journalists and even less time for resident correspondents.
Since early May, however, when a peace agreement was signed in Abuja, Nigeria, no travel permits have been issued, said an official at the External Affairs Council responsible for foreign press. He did not know why.
Some foreign press have travelled to Darfur without permits on high-level delegations or with the African Union, who are monitoring a widely ignored truce in Darfur. But without permits their access is very limited and they risk being arrested.
"I applied for a permit for myself and my photographer on May 3 and still to this day have not received them," said Lydia Polgreen of The New York Times, who is traveling in Darfur with the AU.
Dan Rice of the Guardian newspaper said he had no travel permit despite applying 11 days ago. Permissions for resident journalists, which are usually issued within a day, have not been given after 10 days.
Some correspondents have been waiting months for visas to even enter Sudan.
While foreign press are being hindered from traveling to Darfur, thousands of Darfuris are daily demonstrating angrily in the camps against the AU-mediated deal, which was signed by only one rebel group faction. Two other factions refused to sign.
They say the deal does not meet their demands including adequate representation in central government and involvement in the disarmament of Arab militias. Camp residents have attacked the AU and government, killing an AU translator last week.
"In light of the peace agreement it would be good to have a clear picture of what is happening in Darfur so that the world can see with transparency the commitment of all parties to the deal," said Gemmo Lodesani, a senior U.N. humanitarian in Khartoum.
Officials from the humanitarian affairs commission who issue the permits were not available to comment but Humanitarian Affairs Minister Kosti Manyebi told reporters there should not be barriers.
"Within the next three months we want to put new procedures in place for helping Darfur ... and I believe they will address your concerns adequately," he said.
Sudanese officials said new Darfur travel forms have been introduced in the past two months stating foreign press needed to get permission from local authorities before leaving main towns. Most attacks in Darfur are on remote villages far away from urban centres.
"This is for the security of journalists," said one government official.