Government allied troops launched a new attack on a key rebel-held zone in southern Darfur as the U.N. and aid groups on Monday advised some workers to leave the regional capital temporarily because of insecurity.
Rebels said the Sudanese army and its allied janjaweed militia unleashed a large offensive on the South Darfur town of Muhajeria. The U.S. Embassy in Khartoum also said Monday that violence appeared to be spreading to Muhajeria.
The town was considered neutral because it is a base for fighters from the Sudan Liberation Army faction belonging to Minni Minawi, the sole Darfur rebel chief who signed a peace agreement with the government last year.
Minawi’s leadership was not immediately available for comment, but other splinter SLA chiefs said a large clash was taking place.
“There are heavy aerial bombings happening right now,” said Suleiman Jamous, a leader of the faction known as SLA-Unity.
Sudan’s government denies widespread international accusations it backs the janjaweed, who are blamed for the worst atrocities in the more than four-year-old conflict that has killed some 200,000 people and chased 2.5 million from their homes.
The office of the Sudanese military spokesman did not answer calls from The Associated Press on Monday, but the army regularly denies it conducts military flights, which are banned over Darfur by several U.N. resolutions.
The attack in Muhajeria comes about a week after a separate rebel attack at an African Union base near the town of Haskanita that left 10 AU peacekeepers dead.
Jamous’ SLA-Unity faction, which has not agreed to peace with the government, was suspected in the Sept. 30 attack near Haskanita, which is located about 35 miles east of Muhajeria. Jamous on Monday denied his group was involved but said his rebels were nearby when it took place.
Since the attack at the AU base, about 15,000 civilians have fled from around Haskanita, which was burned to the ground since coming under government control last week.
U.S. urges 'end the cycle of violence'
In a statement Monday, the U.S. Embassy condemned the destruction of Haskanita and pressed for all parties to “immediately end the cycle of violence” in Darfur and commit to a cease-fire ahead of peace talks between the government and rebel groups scheduled to take place later this month in Libya.
Humanitarian groups and U.N. aid agencies advised nonessential staff to leave the South Darfur capital of Nyala temporarily.
“The situation isn’t good,” said Michael Arunga, the spokesman in Nyala for the U.S.-based Christian aid group World Vision, which was the largest humanitarian group operating around the town.
Arunga said five of its aid workers would stay to maintain “lifesaving activities,” including food distribution and medical help in the sprawling refugee camps that surround Nyala.
Orla Clinton, the spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, insisted the departure of aid workers was temporary until the situation cooled off.
Though long-considered Darfur’s safest town, Nyala has witnessed a spree of attacks on aid workers and other violence in recent weeks. At least six people were killed inside the town last week when a brawl between government soldiers and former rebels belonging to Minawi spiraled into a gunbattle.
U.N.-AU force lacks some equipment
Also Monday, U.N. officials said they are still lacking helicopters and ground transport vehicles that could be critical to the success of the 26,000-strong joint U.N.-African Union force expected to begin deploying to Darfur later this year.
Jane Holl Lute, assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping, said the deployment would not be delayed or halted after a certain point because of the lack of transport units. But she said it could “significantly impair” the ability of the force to operate once it reaches Darfur.
“If you want to ensure the protection of civilians, you need that mobility, you need the capacity to transport troops quickly to a place you hear there is some trouble developing and you need to have the firepower and the strength to immediately dominate the situation,” Guehenno said.