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Rice: Sudan is deliberately preventing aid to civilians affected by crisis and near-famine

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, warned the U.N. Security Council that Sudan's restive South Kordofan region faces the prospects of famine if Khartoum does not allow international aid workers into the region to provide relief to more than 500,000 needy civilians.

"It is the United States' firm belief that, if the government of Sudan does not allow immediate meaningful humanitarian access to the conflict zones in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile so life saving humanitarian assistance can be provided to civilians in need, we will likely see famine conditions in parts of Sudan," Rice wrote in a letter to the president of the U.N. Security Council.

The U.S. warning comes nearly two weeks after the U.N.'s chief relief coordinator, Valerie Amos, traveled to Sudan to press the government to allow U.N. aid workers into Southern Kordofan to assess the extent of humanitarian suffering there. It comes on the eve of a briefing today by Amos on the crisis to the Security Council.

During her visit, Amos said that Sudanese refugees entering Ethiopia have reported increasing levels of food shortages and "rising levels of malnutrition" in parts of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile. She said that reports of a humanitarian crisis in territory controlled by the anti-government Sudanese People's Liberation Movement (North) were "particularly alarming."

Amos said that she had reached agreement with Khartoum to share information about the plight of civilians in the conflict zones, and that they would continue to discuss ways to reach civilians affected by the crisis.

The Sudanese armed forces launched a counterinsurgency campaign against the SPLM forces in June, triggering an outbreak of fighting that has forced 300,000 people from their homes, according to U.N. figures. The United Nations, which previously maintained a presence in the region, was asked to leave Sudan after South Sudan seceded from Sudan.

Reports of extreme hardship have filtered out from church groups based in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile and from Sudanese refugees who have made it across the border into neighboring Ethiopia or South Sudan.

But Sudan has restricted U.N. aid agencies from gaining access to the region, citing security concerns. "We are in no position to verify the actual needs on the ground or the fulfillment of those needs as we are simply not there," Peter de Clercq, the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan, said in a recent statement.

Susan Rice wrote that the two Sudanese states will be placed on a Phase 4 Emergency level by March without a major inflow of humanitarian assistance. A Phase 4 Emergency -- a designation that has only been applied to Somalia and Ethiopia -- is one step short of a full-fledged famine.

"It is clear that the Government of Sudan has instituted a deliberate policy to prevent humanitarian agencies from reaching vulnerable civilians impacted by the conflict," Rice wrote. "The conflicts disruption of trade and livelihoods, large scale displacement of people, and severe restrictions on the operations of aid agencies has pushed the people of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile to the brink of a major humanitarian crisis."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch.

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