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KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Rape victims in Sudan's Darfur region have lost vital medical and psychological support since Khartoum expelled aid agencies working against sexual violence this year, the United Nations and aid workers said.
A Sudanese minister on Wednesday dismissed the reports as "propaganda" saying there was no widespread rape in the region and that foreigners were free to come and investigate.
Sudan ousted 13 foreign aid groups and closed three local organisations in March after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al- Bashir to face charges of masterminding atrocities in Darfur.
Khartoum accused the groups of passing information to the Hague-based court, a charge they deny.
Ten out of the 13 expelled foreign groups were doing work related to protection and sexual violence, said an official from one of the ousted organisations who asked not to be named.
"Women are now feeling a lot less safe in reporting rapes and there's been a resurgence of the bad old days when women victims are treated like criminals if they report it," the official said.
Rights groups say women who report attacks risk prosecution for having sex outside marriage under Islamic law in Sudan.
A U.N. report this month said sexual violence was "rampant" in Darfur. The conflict surged in 2003 when mostly non-Arab rebels revolted, accusing Khartoum of neglect.
After the expulsions, "women ... lost access to the medical and psychosocial support offered by those organisations" said the report, which added the gap had not been filled by Khartoum or by Darfur's joint U.N./African Union UNAMID peacekeepers.
The report said researchers documented more than 50 cases of sexual and gender based violence, sometimes by uniformed men, on a visit to Darfur from July to August 2009, adding women in one camp reported up to 35 cases a week when they were out farming.
The expulsions of the agencies had made it more difficult to get accurate data, the report added.
New York-based International Rescue Committee (IRC) said it was running 10 women's centres before Khartoum shut them down.
"To the best of our knowledge, these activities were never taken over by anyone else," spokeswoman Joanne Offer told Reuters in an email.
Organisations who remained in Darfur said they either did not have the experience to fill the gaps, or were reluctant to take on such politically charged work, aid workers said.
"It has been very, very difficult for NGOs (non-governmental organisations) to keep working in these areas," said one aid worker in Darfur, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Even before the expulsions, aid workers in Darfur say authorities harassed them if they spoke openly about abuses.
Sudan's state minister for humanitarian affairs Abdel Baqi al-Jailani said there may be sporadic cases of rape in Darfur, like other societies, but denied there were widespread attacks.
"(Rape) is against our culture, against our religion ... If any NGO wants to work in this sector, the road is open for them. No one is placing anything in their way," he told Reuters.
Jailani said there had been no deliberate attempt to close sexual violence programmes through the expulsions.
UNAMID officials told Reuters the mission had opened new women's centres in some camps, run seminars on sexual violence and employed specially trained gender officers.