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Darfur rebels accuse Sudan army of attacks

By Andrew Heavens
/ Source: Reuters

By Andrew Heavens

Darfur rebels accused Sudanese government forces of attacking their positions on Thursday and Friday, weeks after a senior peacekeeper said the region was no longer in a state of war.

The reports came after a period of relative calm in the region, where more than six years of fighting has driven an estimated 2.7 million from their homes.

Commanders from an arm of the rebel Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) told Reuters Sudan's army, backed up by allied militias, launched ground and air attacks on their positions in territory around the North Darfur area of Korma.

An official from Darfur's joint U.N./African Union UNAMID peacekeeping force said it had received confirmation of the attack from non-rebel sources -- and peacekeeping troops had heard explosions coming from the area. No one was immediately available to comment from Sudan's army.

UNAMID's departing commander Martin Agwai sparked controversy last month when he said Darfur was no longer in a state of war, saying rebels were too fragmented to mount long-term campaigns or hold new territory.

But he also warned there might be a rise in fighting toward the end of the current rainy season as rebel and government forces tried to strengthen their positions ahead of the resumption of troubled talks, scheduled in Doha in October.

International sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there had been a build-up and regular movement of government forces in recent days and weeks around Korma, about 90 km (60 miles) west of El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur, and other parts of the district.

Another source said regular flights to the nearby town of Kutum had been suspended on Friday, often a sign of military activity on the ground.

"There is heavy fighting going on now around Korma," said Ibrahim al-Helwu, a commander from the branch of the rebel group loyal to Abdel Wahed Mohamed Ahmed al-Nur.

"They attacked our forces at 1pm (1000 GMT) on Thursday and all through today. They want to force us to negotiate with them. Our fighters have seen Antonovs and helicopter gunships."

Nur, who is based in Paris, has refused to join talks between Khartoum and Darfur's rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), demanding security on the ground first.

Helwu said many civilians had fled to the hills of Jabel Marra and would need help from the United Nations and aid groups. He said government troops also attacked SLA positions further southwest toward Jabel Marra.

The UNAMID official, who asked not to be named, said peacekeepers had not seen the fighting themselves.

"We heard from independent sources ... that government of Sudan forces launched an attack with about 70 vehicles. Several sources including locals and UNAMID personnel heard explosions."

Darfur's conflict flared in 2003 when mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms against Sudan's government, demanding better representation and accusing it of neglecting the region.

Khartoum mobilized mostly-Arab militias to crush the uprising, unleashing a wave of violence which Washington and some activists have called genocide. Khartoum denies the charge.

Estimates of the death count range from 10,000 according to Khartoum to up to 300,000 according to U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes.