I am grateful to the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) for giving the House the timely opportunity to discuss the Sudan. I am sure that the House will be grateful, as I am, for his first-hand account of the situation there, following his recent visit accompanied by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate (Mr. Banks). I am grateful for his tribute to the work of Her Majesty's ambassador in the Sudan and his staff, who, like those elsewhere in the diplomatic service, fulfil their tasks with dedication and considerable courage.
I found myself in broad agreement with the hon. Gentleman's assessment of the situation and of the causes of the disastrous condition in which the Sudan finds itself. The hon. Member paints a grim picture, and it is all too clear from the many sources available to us that it is an accurate one.
The root cause of the humanitarian crisis is the civil war which has wracked the country for so long. There will be no lasting solution to the problems in the south unless there is a peace settlement. It is crucial that all sides in the conflict—the Sudanese Government and the rival factions in the south—seize the opportunity afforded by the peace talks under way in Abuja. There can be no military solution. We whole-heartedly support the efforts of the Nigerian Government, who are chairing these talks. The Governments of Uganda and Kenya also continue to play a helpful and constructive role.
It is right that the regional powers should be addressing the problem. But it is also our duty and that of our European partners to give every support to the process. This we have pledged to the Nigerian Government. We have also continued to insist in discussion with the parties—the regime in Khartoum and the rival factions of the south—that they seize the opportunity which now exists. We have put this point strongly to Sudanese Ministers. The international community will not understand if any of the parties fails to make the maximum effort. The SPLA leader, John Garang, received that message when he called in at the Foreign Office last month. The British ambassador who, as the hon. Gentleman said, visited southern Sudan two weeks ago, made the same point clearly to rival southern factions. As I speak, the Danish Minister for Development Co-operation is, as the hon. Gentleman also said, leading a troika delegation—on which we are represented by the permanent secretary at the Overseas Development Administration—on a visit to southern Sudan and Khartoum to underline the message.
The Troika will also—this will be a primary objective—underline the seriousness with which the Community and its member states view the humanitarian crisis. It will underline the massive popular concern throughout the western world for the plight of the Sudanese people. There will be a strong message to the Sudanese Government and to the southern leaders that they must ensure that relief aid reaches all those in need throughout the country. Too often in the past the Government or the southern factions have obstructed relief. It is their duty to facilitate and to provide all necessary support and protection for the non-governmental organisations that distribute it. I have to say that in recent months it has been the fighting between factions in the south rather than action by the Sudanese forces that has obstructed our distribution.
The hon. Member referred to the UN relief operation in south Sudan. That is known as Operation Lifeline Sudan—OLS—and it covers a large area of over 100,000 sq. miles of scattered settlements and towns. Much of the area is swampy during the wet season, making some areas inaccessible by road or airlift. Since the beginning of this year, OLS has had agreement from all parties to the conflict to reactivate the relief network to more than 30 locations by air, river, road and rail. That is a complex operation requiring careful assessments to determine the needs and priorities of each area and then to establish the right delivery and distribution systems. The operaton has been disrupted by continuing hostilities, largely by the SPLA factions, which has brought further misery to the civilian population, and destroyed some relief facilities.
The United Nations agencies of the OLS and the international NGOs—non-governmental organisations—have shown courage and tenacity in maintaining relief services, but much remains to be done to relieve the suffering in the most severely affected areas. We await a full report of the visit of the EC troika Development Ministers. But they have already reported that the OLS has done a great deal to alleviate the suffering of more than 600,000 people at risk from shortages of food, medicines and other basic necessities. Those people will need more help to piece together their disrupted lives. Closer co-operation between all those involved and a willingness to give priority to humanitarian aid are essential next steps. The troika is continuing its report on how this can now be achieved. We have provided nearly £23 million since OLS was established in 1989, and we shall now consider ways in which we can continue to help those in need.