Sudan crisis: 'If humanitarian aid is looted, you cannot distribute it' - UN envoy in Sudan says staff 'held at gunpoint'

The United Nations special representative for Sudan has defended the organisations aid response to the crisis, telling Sky News in an exclusive TV interview that supplies in the country had been looted and staff "held at gunpoint".

As Sudan's political centre collapses under the chaos of urban warfare, Volker Perthes is regrouping with his team in the new peacetime capital of Port Sudan.

He told Sky News that a two-week delay in getting UN aid to those affected in Sudan was due to looting.

"Much of the humanitarian aid which we had in stock was looted," he said.

"All the warehouses, WFP [World Food Programme], UNHCR [UN Refugee Agency] and others in Darfur were looted. Vehicles from the humanitarian agencies were looted. The offices of my own mission as well as offices, agencies in most of the towns of Darfur were looted. Food trucks were looted."

As the man at the helm of the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS), Mr Perthes is often perceived to be the main mediator between the Sudanese parties vying for power since former military dictator Omar al Bashir was ousted in 2019.

"WFP lost like 4,000 metric tons of humanitarian goods. So if all this is looted - you cannot distribute it," he said.

Also at the port, are white containers stamped with the UN logo and rows of UN-branded armoured vehicles.

His remarks come as Sudan's citizens were braced for more bloodshed Monday after the rival army and paramilitary forces accused each other of fresh violations of a ceasefire on Sunday.

Hundreds of people have been killed and thousands wounded since a long-simmering power struggle between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) erupted into conflict on 15 April.

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UN staff and personnel involved in the aid mission have also faced extreme dangers, Mr Perthes said.

"Staff members were held at gunpoint. Staff members were thrown out of their houses by armed fighters who took positions, and houses were broken into. We had at least one case of attempted sexual assault... on a female staff member. Many of the houses and apartments were hit by stray shells and bullets."

In the first week of fighting, three WFP staff members were killed in north Darfur and as a result the WFP suspended all operations in the country.

"We are trying to get humanitarian supplies in," Mr Perthes said.

"What we need to resume humanitarian activities is a ceasefire - a ceasefire that holds - and then we can start again."

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In January 2021, Mr Perthes was assigned by the UN to assist with the transition to democratic elections. In October 2021 a military coup staged by the generals brought this transition to a deadly pause.

During this period, both men and the civilian political opposition they have wrestled with for command of the country, have had a seat at his negotiation table.

"In the last two weeks, there was no table to negotiate," said Mr Perthes. "When we still were speaking about a political process, they were all in the room - signatory, civilian, military, non-signatories in different forms. Now, we have been speaking individually to them."

In the first few days of fighting, presidents from Djibouti, South Sudan and Juba offered to fly to Khartoum and lead mediation efforts.

In a recent interview with Sky News, army chief al Burhan said that the climate of clashes was not suitable for their arrival.

Now, there are discussions of peace talks being held in a neighbouring country like Saudi Arabia, UAE or South Sudan.

"The idea is to actually bring them physically together to agree face-to-face on some of the modalities of a ceasefire - which is more than just a declaration of 'we're going to stop the fighting'," Mr Perthes said.

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'How could you let this happen?'

In the past two weeks, Mr Perthes' mission has been a target of anger and frustration. Those who believe he overestimated the generals ask "how could you let this happen?", and those who believe he underestimated the generals ask "how could you not see this coming?"

"We saw enormous tensions between the leadership and the RSF leadership, and we struggled particularly in the last two weeks before 15 April - before the outbreak of hostilities - to de-escalate," Mr Perthes said.

"But of course, we did not see it coming Saturday morning."

Like the forensic timeline of a brutal crime scene, Mr Perthes detailed the 24 hours before that shocking morning.

"We knew there was a risk of an outbreak of hostilities. We warned against it on Friday afternoon. We thought we, others and civilian actors from the Sudan had reached some progress because the two leaders had agreed on forming a military committee which was supposed to meet Saturday morning," he said.

"So we went to bed and said well, maybe we have de-escalated it a little bit - and then we were woken up by the fighting."