AU monitors under fire in Sudan

Unidentified gunmen shot at African Union observers while they were investigating reports that the Sudanese air force had bombed villages in the country’s volatile Darfur region, an official said on Tuesday.

The attacks were the latest in a spate of incidents in South Darfur state as violence continues unabated in the vast western region of the country. Government officials and rebel leaders pledged on Monday to reopen stalled peace talks in Nigeria within weeks to end the two-year conflict in which tens of thousands have died.

None of the unarmed AU monitors was harmed in Monday’s attacks in the town of Biritabla and between Shangil Tobaya and Khor Abeche in South Darfur state, but one of the mission’s vehicles was hit by gunfire, said AU spokesperson Jean-Baptiste Natama.

Natama said he had no details on who attacked the AU forces, which are monitoring largely ignored ceasefire agreements signed between rebels and the Sudanese government in November and April last year.

Baba Gana Kingibe, the AU envoy in Sudan, condemned the latest attacks on his forces, saying in a statement that the organisation “does not wish to be drawn into a situation where its monitors and protectors will be obliged to defend themselves by the use of force”.

The AU monitors came under attack while investigating reports of recent aerial bombardments in South Darfur, including claims that about 100 people were killed or wounded in last week’s raid on the village of Shangil Tobaya, near the border of South and North Darfur states.

Osman Mohamed Yusuf Kibir, the governor of North Darfur state, has denied reports that government forces bombed villages, saying the claims were “lies diffused by the organisations and the Western media”.

AU forces in Darfur also came under attack in two separate incidents in December, including one attack on one of the organisation’s helicopters.

The United Nations has reported that fighting in the area around Shangil Tobaya has displaced more than 10 000 people during the past three weeks.

“Clearly these incidences, if they continue, cause a serious threat to the ceasefire monitoring process,” Kingibe said.

The 53-member AU has sent 1 700 unarmed military observers and police and troops to guard them to Darfur, an area the size of France.

Kingibe “strongly” urged the government of Sudan, its allied Arab militia known as the Janjaweed and rebels groups in the region “to fully respect the neutrality of the AU monitors and their protectors, and to cooperate fully with [the AU mission in Sudan] in carrying out its mandate in Darfur”.

Darfur has been torn by conflict since February 2003, when non-Arab militias launched a rebellion, complaining of discrimination by Khartoum’s Arab-dominated government. Arab militiamen then launched a bloody campaign of violence against non-Arab Africans in Darfur, allegedly with government backing.

Disease and hunger have killed 70 000 in Darfur region since March alone, the World Health Organisation says.
Nearly two million have fled their homes since February 2003.—Sapa-AP

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