GOLO, Sudan - The top US envoy in Sudan pushed Monday for more access to deliver humanitarian aid to Golo as he visited the former rebel stronghold in war-torn Darfur under tight security.
US charge d'affaires Steven Koutsis was in Golo as part of a tour to assess the security situation in Darfur as the United Nations prepares to downsize its 17,000-strong peacekeeping force.
Koutsis's visit to the town surrounded by the thickly forested mountains of Jebel Marra comes weeks before President Donald Trump's administration decides whether to permanently lift a two-decades-old US trade embargo on Sudan.
"Golo is a strategic area for providing humanitarian assistance," he told officials and security officers he met in a tightly secured building, an AFP correspondent reported from the venue.
Khartoum restricts the access of international media to Darfur and particularly to Jebel Marra, which foreign media have been unable to visit for years.
"That is why we are here to understand better what is needed to bring more assistance here," Koutsis said.
Aid workers have complained that delivering aid to Golo and other parts of Jebel Marra has been extremely difficult given the terrain and the severe restrictions imposed by the Sudanese authorities.
They say a road journey to Golo is a challenging experience in itself, with several hours needed to reach the town given its location in the hilly areas of central Darfur.
The Sudan Liberation Army - Abdul Wahid group (SLA/AW) were attracted to Golo because of the region's wealth of natural resources, its fertile ground and mountainous terrain.
The main rebel group of Jebel Marra turned Golo into their stronghold until it came under government control last year.
Pleas for aid
A 90-minute helicopter flight brought Koutsis to Golo, where he was welcomed by cheering children who poured out from their homes to a makeshift helipad where the chopper landed.
Children ran behind his convoy of armoured vehicles as it travelled down a rocky road while groups of women watched the motorcade from the street.
The impact of the fighting on Jebel Marra is clear in Golo.
The town is rife with half-built brick homes damaged in the fighting, muddy roads and queues of women and children waiting to collect water in plastic cans from hand pumps.
An official from Sudan Humanitarian Commission told Koutsis that Golo needed better infrastructure, including well-built schools, roads and healthcare facilities.
"Many classes are held in school rooms without roofs," said Abdo Aldeem.
Workers at Golo's only hospital say they are struggling to deal with malnutrition among children and provide better care for pregnant women.
Several children suffering from severe malnutrition are being treated at the hospital, the AFP correspondent accompanying Koutsis reported. The walls of the hospital still had pro-rebel graffiti.
"Only yesterday a child died," a UNICEF worker said.
Jebel Marra saw pitched battles last year between government forces and the SLA/AW group, which Khartoum accuses of ambushing military convoys and attacking civilians.
In September, Amnesty International accused Sudanese forces of carrying out chemical attacks during a military operation against the rebel group.
Sudanese officials including President Omar al-Bashir have denied these charges.
Tens of thousands of people were displaced in Jebel Marra in last year's fighting, the United Nations says.
Deadly conflict broke out in Darfur in 2003 when ethnic minority groups took up arms against Bashir's Arab-dominated government, which launched a brutal counter-insurgency.
At least 300,000 people have since been killed and 2.5 million displaced in Darfur, the UN says.
Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court on alleged war crimes and genocide charges related to Darfur, which he denies.
On Monday, Koutsis also pushed for a strong presence of UN peacekeeping forces in Golo and other parts of Jebel Marra -- an area where UN forces are still not deployed.
He said that although UNAMID is expected to be restructured, its forces need to be present in Jebel Marra.
"We need to have UNAMID present here... to offer big assistance to the local region," he said.
Access for delivering humanitarian aid and ensuring security in Darfur are key conditions insisted by Washington in order to lift sanctions imposed on Sudan in 1997.
The sanctions were imposed over Khartoum's alleged support for Islamist groups.
Although Washington believes Khartoum's terror ties have ebbed, it has kept sanctions in place because of the scorched-earth tactics it has used against ethnic minority rebels in Darfur.