A fresh Sudanese offensive by government soldiers and Arab militiamen against Darfur rebels has trapped thousands of refugees along the Chadian border, the rebels and humanitarian workers said Wednesday.
Local rebel commander Abbas Mohamed said a dozen civilians were killed and 20 arrested during the latest government attack, which targeted the Jebel Moon area of West Darfur on Tuesday. The Sudanese military said eight soldiers were killed and 15 injured in Tuesday's fighting.
"Fighting is still going on," Mohamed told The Associated Press by satellite phone from Jebel Moon. Three rebels also were killed, he said.
At least 8,000 refugees have been trapped in the area by the fighting, unable to flee into Chad, Orla Clinton, a U.N. spokeswoman in Sudan, told the AP. She said the situation remains unclear because humanitarian workers have had to evacuate the zone.
Clinton could not confirm who was blocking the refugees from crossing. Rebel commander Mohamed accused government troops and their janjaweed militiamen allies of stopping them, and he put the number trapped at 10,000. "They want to cross to Chad but the government is barring the way," he said.
The Sudanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ali Sadiq said he didn't have "any details" about stranded refugees. "I'm sure the number is an exaggeration" he told the AP from Khartoum.
More than 200,000 have died in Sudan's Darfur region and 2.5 million have fled to refugee camps — including over 250,000 to neighboring Chad — since 2003, when local ethnic African rebels took arms against the Arab-dominated central government, accusing it of discrimination.
Sudan denies backing the janjaweed militia of Arab nomads accused of the worst atrocities in the conflict.
At least 12,000 refugees have fled to Chad this month to escape the escalating combat, and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon "is extremely concerned by the renewed violence in West Darfur," spokeswoman Marie Okabe said in New York, citing in particular the bombing of the Aro Sharow refugee camp on Monday and Tuesday.
Abdulwahid Elnur, the main leader of the Sudan Liberation Movement rebels, accused the U.N. and aid workers of abandoning Darfur's civilians.
"The army and the janjaweed are killing in broad daylight and the international community is doing nothing," he said by telephone from Paris, where he lives in exile.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission to Darfur, UNAMID, which was launched in January, has been tasked with preventing such violence. But it says it can't intervene in places like Jebel Moon because it still lacks most of the 26,000 peacekeepers planned for the mission.
"At the moment, the forces aren't at the level where they have the capacity to intervene directly in the fighting," said Adrian Edwards, a UNAMID spokesman.
Aid workers worry children are being separated from their families amid the chaos of fleeing civilians. "We have confirmed 12 cases of missing children," UNICEF spokesman Edward Cawardine said from the main West Darfur town of El Geneina.
The U.N.'s High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, which handles refugees once they arrive in Chad, also has had to leave much of the Chadian border zone because of nearby bombings in Darfur.
The Sudanese military claimed victory in the Jebel Moon fighting. Army spokesman Gen. Mohamed al-Aghbash said the military had "spread its full control over the area," state television reported Wednesday.
Despite a U.N. Security Council ban on military operations in Darfur, al-Aghbash said Jebel Moon is "a legitimate target" for the army as long as rebels hold the zone.
The Justice and Equality Movement rebel group, however, claimed it repelled three army battalions and several janjaweed units in Tuesday's fighting. The JEM statement claimed the rebels shot down two helicopters that were backing Sudanese aircraft bombing the area.
The Sudanese army did not comment on the claim, but al-Aghbash accused the Chadian government of providing JEM with anti-aircraft missiles and said the rebels were "backed by Chadian troops and armored vehicles."
Chad's government denies it supports Darfur fighters, and in turn accuses Sudan of harboring the Chadian rebels who attacked Chad's capital earlier this month.