By Andrew Heavens
KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Darfur rebels accused Sudan government forces on Saturday of bombing their territory, just days after the president announced a ceasefire in the region.
But Sudan's armed forces denied the reports, saying they were sticking to the ceasefire. They said they had made no manoeuvres in the area.
The accusations, if confirmed, will dismay many governments and international bodies who praised Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on Wednesday for announcing an "immediate and unconditional" end to hostilities as part of a new peace push in the western region.
Other ceasefires have fallen apart in Darfur in the past.
The reports come at a particularly sensitive time for Khartoum which has stepped up diplomatic efforts to block moves by the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to indict Bashir for war crimes in Darfur.
International experts say more than five years of fighting in Darfur has killed 200,000 and driven more than 2.5 million from their homes. Khartoum accuses the media of exaggerating the conflict as part of a western conspiracy against Sudan
Commanders from four rebel factions told Reuters government Antonov planes bombed land between the settlements of Kurbia and Um Mahareik, close to a key road in north Darfur, for several hours on Friday morning.
U.N. sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they had received the same reports from rebels and civilians in the area. Many of the rebel and civilian witnesses had proved themselves reliable in the past, these sources added.
A second U.N. officer said officials were planning to visit the area on Sunday to check the reports for themselves.
A spokesman from Sudan's armed forces said there was no truth to the reports.
"Sudan's armed forces are committed to the ceasefire announced by President al-Bashir. President al-Bashir is the first commander of the Sudanese army," he told Reuters.
"The Sudanese army did not launch any air strike. The Sudanese army did not move in this area in any way."
Rebels said government Antonovs bombed a wide area of largely open ground for more than three hours on Friday morning.
"They were bombing the area very seriously," said Ibrahim al-Helwu from the branch of the rebel Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) controlled by Abdel Wahed Mohamed Ahmed al-Nur.
"There is no ceasefire. They are just pretending," he said.
Both the head of the SLA's Unity faction Abdallah Yahia, and the London-based chairman of legislative council for the rebel Justice and Equality Movement Al-Tahir al-Feki, told Reuters their commanders in the northern region had confirmed the bombing took place.
"There is a pattern of behaviour," said al-Feki adding that Khartoum had broken another ceasefire days after signing it last year.
The head of the insurgent United Resistance Front Bahar Idriss Abu Garda said the attack had not targeted any settlements or rebel camps and there had been no reports of casualties. "We think they were bombing the area for security ... They suspected somebody was going to ambush them," he said.
Kurbia and Um Mahareik lie either side of a major transport route in north Darfur that crosses into neighbouring Chad. Khartoum has in the past vowed to defend key roads in Darfur, saying it wants to protect humanitarian convoys from attacks by rebels and bandits.
Another international source said government troops had stopped vehicles driving to the area on Friday.