“These incidents of hostage taking of international workers are a new and deeply troubling development in Darfur, with the potential to undermine the efforts of the international community,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon writes in his latest report to the Security Council on the joint UN-African Union operation in Darfur (UNAMID).

Two international staff members of UNAMID who were abducted on 29 August in West Darfur are still being held in captivity.

“Until their security is unconditionally guaranteed by all parties in Darfur, the activities of UNAMID and the agencies will continue to be a risky and dangerous undertaking. The safety of both United Nations hostages, meanwhile, remains an urgent concern and efforts are ongoing at the highest levels to secure their safe and unconditional release,” says Mr. Ban.

He notes that the attacks, harassment, criminal activity and banditry against UN agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have already led to the suspension of some activities and programmes by the humanitarian community in a region where at least 300,000 people are estimated to have died and 2.7 million more have been driven from their homes in the fighting between the Government, its militia allies and various armed groups.

Since the last report in June, UNAMID has reached 69 per cent of its authorized troop strength -14,638 military personnel out of the total 19,555, and 4,449 police. However, the force still lacks key military elements, including two medium transport units, a level II hospital, an aerial reconnaissance unit, and 18 medium utility helicopters - “a source of serious concern” - nearly two years after its creation.

Mr. Ban voices deep concern at reports of ongoing fighting between the Government and the rebel groups, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Army/Abdul Wahid faction (SLA/AW), leading to the deaths of civilians and demonstrating that the parties have not made a full commitment to a political solution to the Darfur crisis.

“In the context of the ongoing violence in Darfur, freedom of movement for UNAMID and humanitarian personnel is absolutely critical,” he says, stressing that the frequent denial of access by Government officials for UNAMID, including to camps for internally displaced persons (IDP), “are a direct violation of the Status of Forces Agreement with the Government of the Sudan and a serious impediment” to the mission's mandate.

“In particular, where populations have been made more vulnerable by violence, I urge the Government to intensify its efforts to ensure that UNAMID and humanitarian personnel are granted full access to affected areas.”

Referring to clashes between Chadian and Sudanese troops along their common border, the Secretary-General calls on all parties “to exercise restraint, to cease support for rebel groups in both Chad and the Sudan, and to work in good faith towards a secure environment in Darfur.”

On the political front, attempts to resume peace negotiations have not been successful despite “extraordinary efforts” at mediation, with both SLA/AW and JEM refusing to engage in substantive discussions with the Government, he writes, urging all parties “re-engage with the peace process in good faith, with a view to achieving a sustainable peace for all Darfurians.”

Turning to the humanitarian situation, Mr. Ban reports that efforts continued to fill the gaps in the delivery of services created by the Government's expulsion in March of 13 international NGOs and the dissolution of three national NGOs.

“These shortages have contributed to an increase in malnutrition levels, particularly in rural areas, where relief assistance is stretched beyond capacity,” he says. “In addition, of an estimated 800,000 households that have been left without humanitarian support in the food security and livelihoods sector, more than 40 per cent have not received vital seeds and tools.”

Moreover, livestock vaccination remained below 20 per cent of the planned target, environmental resource protection coverage was insignificant despite continued natural resource degradation, and the expulsions left a significant gap in the education sector, with 27 of 70 administrative localities either partially or not at all covered, potentially eroding gains achieved during the past years. There is an outstanding gap of some 9,100 new teachers in Darfur.#