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Sudan fighting brings "huge biological risk" as lab holding samples of deadly diseases occupied, WHO warns

Violence in Sudan continues amid casualties
Thousands flee Khartoum as White House demands ceasefire 02:19

Geneva — Fighters have occupied a national public laboratory in Sudan holding samples of diseases including polio and measles, creating an "extremely, extremely dangerous" situation, the World Health Organization warned Tuesday. Fighters "kicked out all the technicians from the lab... which is completely under the control of one of the fighting parties as a military base," said Nima Saeed Abid, the WHO's representative in Sudan.

He did not say which of the two warring factions had taken over the laboratory, as a tense truce appeared to be largely holding Tuesday, easing more than a week of intense fighting between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the country's RSF paramilitary group.

Abid said he had received a call from the head of the national lab in Khartoum on Monday, a day before a US-brokered 72-hour ceasefire between Sudan's warring generals officially came into effect after 10 days of urban combat.

General Abdulfettah al-Burhan in Ethiopian border
Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Burhan, commander of the Sudanese Armed Forces, visits troops in the region of Little Fasaka on the Sudan-Ethiopia border, in a June 27, 2022 file photo. Al-Burhan is one of two Sudanese generals who were battling for control of the country in April 2023.  Sudan Sovereignty Council Press Office/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty

"There is a huge biological risk associated with the occupation of the central public health lab," said Abid.

He pointed out that the lab held so-called isolates, or samples, of a range of deadly diseases, including measles, polio and cholera.

A technician works at the National Public Health Laboratory of Sudan, in a file image provided by the Reuters news agency. NATIONAL PUBLIC HEALTH LABORATORY – SUDAN/handout/Reuters

The U.N. health agency also said it had confirmed 14 attacks on healthcare during the fighting, killing eight and injuring two, and it warned that "depleting stocks of blood bags risk spoiling due to lack of power."

"In addition to chemical hazards, bio-risk hazards are also very high due to lack of functioning generators," Abid said.

The Sudanese health ministry has put the number of deaths so far at 459, with a further 4,072 wounded, the WHO said Tuesday, adding it had not been able to verify that number.

Looming refugee exodus

The U.N. refugee agency said thousands had already fled the violence and that it was bracing for up to 270,000 people to flee Sudan into neighboring Chad and South Sudan.

UNHCR said it does not yet have estimates for the numbers headed to other surrounding countries, but there were reports of chaos at at least one border, with Egypt, as Sudanese nationals sought to flee their country while other nations worked to get their citizens out.

Americans still trying to escape Sudan after embassy staff evacuated 02:15

Laura Lo Castro, the agency's representative in Chad, said some 20,000 refugees had arrived there since the fighting began 10 days ago.

Speaking to reporters in Geneva via video-link, she said the UNHCR expected up to 100,000 "in the worst-case scenario".

Her colleague in South Sudan, Marie-Helene Verney, said that around 4,000 of the more than 800,000 South Sudanese refugees living in Sudan had returned home since the fighting began.

Looking forward, she told reporters that "the most likely scenario is 125,000 returns of South Sudanese refugees into South Sudan".

Up to 45,000 Sudanese might also flee as refugees into South Sudan, she said.

Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN humanitarian agency, said the fighting had led to "acute shortages of food, water, medicines and fuel, and limited communications and electricity."

"The people of Sudan, already deeply affected by humanitarian needs, are staring into the abyss."

Some 15.8 million people in Sudan — a third of the population — already needed humanitarian aid before the latest violence erupted.

But humanitarian operations have also been heavily affected by the fighting, Laerke warned, highlighting among other things reports of looting of humanitarian supplies and warehouses.

Five humanitarian workers have been killed.

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