Violence ‘could undermine Darfur peace talks’

Ongoing violence in Sudan’s Darfur region threatens to undermine planned peace talks between Khartoum and rebel groups, a British minister said as he flew into the war-torn area on Tuesday.

British Foreign Office Minister for Africa Mark Malloch Brown made the remarks a day after rebels said government aircraft had bombed a rebel-held Darfur town. A Sudanese army spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.

Malloch Brown, on a day-long trip to Darfur, told Reuters: ”Ongoing volatility on the ground could undermine peace talks. My message is that the government should try to stop all offensive action and the rebels should do the same.”

Khartoum signed a joint communiqué with the United Nations last week that included pledges to cease hostilities in Darfur, prepare for the arrival of a 26 000-strong joint UN/African Union peacekeeping mission, and to lay the foundations for peace talks in Libya on October 27.

”At the moment, we are pushing a constructive diplomatic engagement trying to get everyone to the talks. If that approach fails, then we’ll come down hard on whatever side is responsible for that, whether that is the rebels or the government,” Malloch Brown said.

He said that sanctions were ”in reserve”, and that measures taken against rebel groups could include a reduction in the support offered to them in foreign countries.

International experts estimate about 200 000 people have died and 2,5-million displaced in over four years of violence in Darfur, which Washington calls genocide.

Khartoum denies genocide and says the Western media overplay the conflict. The International Criminal Court is investigating war-crimes allegations in the region.

Attack accusations

Darfur rebel groups the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Army’s Unity (SLA-Unity) faction said government helicopters and Antonov aircraft had attacked their positions in the town of Haskanita on Monday. The rebels say they repelled a ground assault that followed the bombardment.

A spokesperson for the AU, which has a small force of peacekeepers in Haskanita, has confirmed receiving reports of fighting in the town, although details still had to be checked by officers.

Earlier this year UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on Khartoum to stop its bombing campaign in Darfur, saying the air attacks violated a UN Security Council resolution.

Abu-Bakr Mohammed Kadu, an SLA-Unity field commander, said his forces had taken 10 government soldiers prisoner during the attack on Haskanita. ”We call on the International Committee of the Red Cross to come. We want to hand the POWs over to them.”

Abdel Aziz el-Nur Ashr from JEM said the attack had not affected the group’s determination to attend the peace talks but added the incident raised questions over Khartoum’s commitment.

International observers who did not want to be named said it was likely the attack was in retaliation for a joint JEM/SLA-Unity assault on a government base east of Haskanita in Sudan’s Kordofan region at the end of August. — Reuters

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