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File Photo: Newly arrived children walk up a slope as they fetch water at the Zam Zam IDP camp, near Al Fashir in North Darfur, April 9, 2015. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah(reuters_tickers)
By Lesley Wroughton
ZAM ZAM CAMP, North Darfur (Reuters) - Washington's top aid official, Mark Green, visiting Sudan's North Darfur state, stressed on Monday the importance of unfettered humanitarian access as a key demand for easing U.S. sanctions against the government of President Omar al-Bashir
Just two weeks into the job as U.S. President Donald Trump's new aid administrator, Green is on a fact-finding mission to Sudan before an Oct. 12 deadline for when the administration will decide whether to permanently lift 20-year-old sanctions.
The United Nations has reported progress in the opening of aid corridors by Sudan's military to get food and medicine into once tightly-controlled areas of Darfur.
Last month for the first time in seven years, aid workers were allowed into Jebel Marra, a mountainous region in central, north and south Darfur where fighting persists. There they found acute malnutrition and high levels of child mortality, according to a USAID report.
Before sanctions can be lifted the Sudanese government needs to comply with five U.S. demands, including improved humanitarian access, more cooperation between the U.S. and Sudan on fighting extremism and an end to internal conflicts.
While Green acknowledged there had been progress on all fronts, the question was whether it was enough for Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to permanently lift the sanctions, he said.
"Certainly there has been progress particularly in recent weeks," Green told Reuters and the Washington Post in a joint interview. "This is not a matter of whether things look perfect on the date that a decision made, it's whether or not long-lasting changes have been made."
"It's not meant to be one-off, it's not meant to be a single moment, a snap shot, but instead the product of real change," Green added.
He said dialogue with Khartoum was an opportunity for a "new and closer relationship" and could mean a significant change in the lives of a population hard hit by the sanctions.
Then-U.S. President Barack Obama temporarily lifted sanctions for six months in January, suspending a trade embargo, unfreezing assets and removing financial sanctions.
But any sanctions relief would not remove Sudan from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, a designation it shares with Iran and Syria.
"The sanctions about which we're talking are but one set of sanctions," said Green. "At this point in time we're engaging in conversations with Sudan to see what is possible, and that is really all that these conversations are really about."
"We will all know more about what is possible come October, so no one is pretending, or suggesting there is a magic wand and that everything changes on October 12," he said.
Senior U.S. officials, who spoke before Green's trip on condition of anonymity, have expressed concern that once sanctions are lifted progress by the Bashir government could backslide. Others worry that if sanctions are not lifted in October the government will halt cooperation with Washington.
Darfur's conflict began more than a decade ago when rebels took up arms against the government in Khartoum. The government responded with force, using militias known as the janjaweed, which were drawn from nomadic Arab tribes and blamed for much of the killing.
U.S. AID MONEY AT WORK
Less than 10 miles (16 km) outside the North Darfur city of El Fashir, the Zam Zam camp was once a village that has become a sprawling home for 230,000 people who have fled Darfur's conflict. As he toured the camp Green saw for himself US-funded programs that help mothers and malnourished children.
"I want to go home but it isn't safe," said Hawad Abdullah Mohamad, 33, a mother of seven who has lived in Zam Zam for 13 years.
Nearby, under a large tree, Green spoke with about a dozen men, who complained about access to food and camp life.
"Where do you see yourself in five years from now?" Green asked Ahmed Nour Mohamed from Tawila village. When he did not get a straight answer, Green persisted with the line of questioning.
"In my village or in the grave," Mohamed replied.
Green said later he was trying to understand what was keeping people at Zam Zam from returning home.
"These are important questions for us to ask because for an agency like USAID ... we should be thinking about what it would take to tackle conditions so people can leave the camps," he said.
(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Andrew Bolton)