Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir made a rash statement Monday declaring that all foreign aid groups must leave the country within a year, and can instead drop off supplies at airports for Sudanese relief groups to distribute.
"We have ordered the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs to completely 'Sudanize' the voluntary work in Sudan within one year and after that we don't want international organizations to deal with Sudanese citizens on relief," al-Bashir said to a crowd of thousands of security forces waving guns in the air, according to Reuters.
"If they want to continue providing aid, they can just leave it at airports and Sudanese NGOs (non-governmental organizations) can distribute the relief," he said.
But his remarks were later downplayed by Sudanese government officials, who assured that U.N. agencies would not be affected. State Minister for Humanitarian Affairs Ahmed Haroun told The Associated Press that al-Bashir's comments will not affect U.N. operations, and that Sudanese officials will create a plan for the transition.
Haroun, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, was also asked if the president's comment will apply to all international aid groups. He responded, "Not necessarily."
Even before the expulsion declaration, al-Bashir had already taken steps to expel international aid groups, with 13 large aid groups, most of them operating in Darfur, ordered to leave days after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for him for crimes against humanity in Darfur.
Al-Bashir has accused foreign aid groups of spying and providing the ICC with false information against him and his government.
Since 2003, more than 200,000 people have been killed and 2.7 million people displaced from their homes in the western region of Darfur. The Arab central government, headed by al-Bashir, is accused of unleashing Arab nomads known as janjaweed militia on Darfur civilians after they rebelled against the Khartoum government.
Sudan has refused to hand al-Bashir or Haroun over to ICC.
In response to the al-Bashir's statement on Monday, U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes said he is trying to obtain a clarification of what the announcement actually means, according to AP. Holmes also said international aid groups would not turn their supplies over to the Sudanese government because they want to know how the items are being distributed.
Some aid workers say they don't know yet what to think about al-Bashir's announcement.
"We don't know if it is a genuine policy or whether he just wanted to say something nationalistic to rally the troops... If it does go through it will have an enormous impact," said one aid worker, on condition of anonymity, to Reuters.
Aid groups estimate that the expulsion threatens the survival of more than 2 million Sudanese who depend on the aid.
Franklin Graham, head of Christian relief group Samaritan's Purse, which has extensive projects in Sudan, has warned that the ICC arrest warrant could do more harm than good to Sudan.
The relief chief, who is perhaps best known as the son of American evangelist Billy Graham, fears that violence driven by al-Bashir's supporters will break out in Sudan because of the arrest warrant.
"[H]is removal could also spur retaliation by Bashir loyalists and other forces against civilians, United Nations peacekeepers or international aid workers," Graham cautioned in an opinion column posted in the New York Times on March 3.
"I want to see justice served, but my desire for peace in Sudan is stronger," Graham wrote. "Mr. Bashir, accused of genocide and crimes against humanity, is hardly an ideal peacemaker. But given all the warring factions in Sudan, there is no guarantee that his replacement would be better."
Graham had met with al-Bashir on March 4, just hours before the ICC announced the arrest warrant for the Sudanese president. The American humanitarian leader and evangelist calls on the United States to "take the lead" in solving the Darfur crisis, and urges President Barack Obama to immediately appoint a special envoy to Sudan to help address the mounting problems in Sudan.