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08 Oct 2007 18:00
Sudanese government troops and allied militia on Monday attacked a town belonging to the only Darfur rebel faction to sign a 2006 peace deal, rebels said.
“Government planes have attacked Muhajiriya, which belongs to us, and government forces and Janjaweed militia are fighting our forces,” said Khalid Abakar, a senior representative from the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA).
Abakar is from the SLA faction led by Minni Arcua Minnawi, the only one of three rebel negotiating factions to sign a May 2006 peace deal with Khartoum. The movement then became part of the government and controls Muhajiriya town in South Darfur.
“We consider this a very serious development,” the head of Minnawi’s office, Mohamed Bashir, told Reuters.
“Half of Muhajiriya is burnt down,” he said, adding Minnawi would return to Khartoum from Darfur following the attack.
Rival rebel factions who did not sign the May 2006 deal confirmed the attack on Muhajiriya, adding government troops were also amassing near Tine town, on the Chadian border, preparing to attack rebel-controlled areas in North Darfur.
Neither AU nor Sudanese government officials were immediately available to comment.
SLA Minnawi spokesperson al-Tayyib Khamis said the assault was a clear violation of the year-old peace deal, and did not bode well ahead of talks aimed to bring other factions into the peace process in Libya on October 27.
“If they really wanted peace and negotiations they would not be attacking our areas,” he said.
Bashir said the assault was a continuation of a Sudanese army offensive on the former rebel town of Haskanita in south-east Darfur, which has been burnt to the ground and emptied of civilians in an attack eerily reminiscent of town clearances reported at the start of the Darfur conflict in 2003.
More than 100 killed
Fighting began in Sudan’s western Darfur region when mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms accusing the government in Khartoum of neglect.
The government responded by arming militias to put down the revolt.
Poorly funded and badly equipped African Union peacekeepers sent in to stop the violence have been unable to do so, and have themselves come under attack from a population frustrated by what they see as a lack of will to end the conflict.
Growing tensions in the run-up to AU-UN-mediated peace talks in Libya exploded on September 29 when armed men in 30 vehicles descended upon an AU peacekeepers’ base near Haskanita, destroying the base and killing 10 peacekeepers.
Haskanita had been a rebel-controlled town and AU officials had privately suspected breakaway rebel factions were behind the attack, the worst since the AU mission deployed in 2004.
The AU asked the government to secure the area while they withdrew, leaving no international observers in the region beset by clashes between the army and rebels. While the Sudanese army occupied the town last week, it burned to the ground.
Suleiman Jamous, a respected humanitarian coordinator for the Sudan Liberation Army, said the government and allied militia razed Haskanita over several days.
“About 105 people killed is the last figure we have,” Jamous told Reuters. “There are many others in the bush who may die of thirst—they need water,” he added.
Jamous, who is across the border from Darfur in Abeche, Chad, said all the residents of villages surrounding Haskanita had fled too after seeing the town razed.
The United Nations, which inspected the town for two hours on Saturday, confirmed it had been burnt to the ground but could not say by whom or whether there were any casualties.
UN officials said only the mosque and school were left standing and most of Haskanita’s 7Â 000 population had fled.
Sudan’s army said a fire, the cause of which was unclear, started in the market and spread to the rest of the town, and said the United Nations had exaggerated the damage.
“There was a fire but it was brought under control,” an army spokesperson said. “The United Nations has made this into something bigger than it is.”
But the US embassy in Khartoum condemned the attack on Haskanita and the spread of fighting to Muhajiriya.
“We call on all parties to immediately end the cycle of violence in Darfur, and adhere to a ceasefire in advance of the upcoming UN-led peace talks in Libya,” it said in a statement.
The rebel Justice and Equality Movement breakaway commander, Bahar Idriss Abu Garda, said government militiamen had since looted the AU base and Haskanita, and were selling stolen goods in nearby town markets.—Reuters
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