By Andrew Heavens
KHARTOUM, Nov 30 (Reuters) - Humanitarian aid groups are facing growing harassment in South Darfur where government officials have forced staff to hand over confidential emails and files, United Nations officials said on Sunday.
But the head of Sudan's state Humanitarian Aid Commission in the region denied the accusations, saying his office was doing all it could to assist development groups.
The U.N. officers, who did not want to be identified, told Reuters that Sudanese officials had ordered a crackdown on aid groups they suspected of supplying evidence to the International Criminal Court for a war crimes case against Sudan's president.
Aid agencies have launched the world's largest humanitarian operation to support 2.5 million people driven from their homes by more than five years of fighting in Sudan's violent west.
"There has been really severe intimidation...NGOs are in a state of shock in South Darfur," said a senior U.N. officer.
"They have been able to intimidate international and national staff into going into computers, open their private emails -- Gmail, Hotmail. (The officials are saying) if you don't give me your password, you won't get out of this country."
Most aid workers have to apply for exit visas every time they want to leave Sudan.
Senior Sudanese officials have repeatedly accused humanitarian groups of spying on government forces in the past and scores of aid workers have been expelled since the conflict started in 2003.
Sorour Ahmed Abdullah, the head of Sudan's Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC) in Nyala, capital of south Darfur, told Reuters the accusations were based on "wrong information".
"There is no harassment by this authority which gives all the facilities necessary for international organisations," he said, adding that HAC officers had not launched any investigations linked to the International Criminal Court.
The U.N. Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes said he had brought up the harassment reports with South Darfur's governor during a visit to Nyala last week. The governor promised to investigate the complaints, Holmes added.
A spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Khartoum said its officials were also "deeply troubled" by an "ongoing campaign of harassment and intimidation of international NGOs", particularly in South Darfur.
The U.N. officers said harassment had been on the rise since ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo asked judges for an arrest warrant for Sudan's President Bashir in July, accusing him of masterminding genocide and other war crimes including mass rape in Darfur.
"The government feels that the information released by the (ICC) prosecutor to document his case against the president was most likely coming from the NGOs," said one Khartoum-based U.N. officer.
The officer said the government's suspicions were unfounded as most of the prosecutor's material had been gathered from human rights groups based outside Sudan, and publicly available U.N. human rights reports.
Other U.N. officials said teams from HAC visited a string of aid agencies in south Darfur in late August, demanding staff hand over copies of sensitive files in a bid to find proof of collaboration with the global court.
In the following months, internal documents from aid groups have been leaked to state media, aid workers have been denied travel permits and stopped for questioning, deliveries of fuel into displacement camps have been restricted and programmes relating to rape and sexual health shut down, they said.
The U.N. officials said there were particular worries about the copying of files containing personal information about women who had made allegations of rape or received treatment and counselling after sexual attacks.
One officer said there were "concerns about ... intimidation against individuals in case they want to go into court ... or potential retaliation against the victims." (Additional reporting by Khaled Abdelaziz)