Darfur rebels clash with Sudanese army troops
CAIRO (AP) — Rival Darfur rebel groups have joined forces to fend off an attack by government troops in the latest fighting in Sudan's troubled western region, rebel leaders said Friday.
Darfur's most powerful rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement, said Sudanese soldiers attacked rebel positions in North Darfur on Thursday near Dar al-Salam, south of the regional capital of El Fasher. JEM said three rebels were killed and eight wounded.
The international peacekeeping mission in Darfur said it was gravely concerned about the reported clashes, and urged those fighting to allow humanitarian access to civilians in the area.
Tensions between government forces and another Darfur rebel group, which had signed a peace deal four years ago, over control of areas in vast Darfur sparked fighting earlier this month, prompting thousands of civilians to flee in fear of violence.
The tension was likely what caused a number of the rival rebel groups to join ranks in facing government troops.
Local JEM commander Ali al-Wafi said in a statement posted on the movement's website that fighters from other rebel groups fought "shoulder-to-shoulder" with JEM forces to repulse the assault in a "major victory."
However, a Sudanese army spokesman, Capt. Sawarmy Khalid, denied the clashes took place and said the army has no troops in the area.
Another local rebel commander, Abu Bakr Hamid Nour, said rebels fought off government troops for about two hours, forcing them to retreat to El Fasher. He told The Associated Press the clashes began when the army attacked rebel positions belonging to the Sudan Liberation Army forces loyal to Minni Minnawi, drawing other rebel groups into the area to come to their defense.
"The government has left us with no choice but to coordinate our fight," Nour said.
Margaret Carey, an official with the U.N.-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur, or UNAMID, said unconfirmed reports from the area indicate JEM troops had cordoned off the village and asked the population to leave ahead of clashes with the Sudanese Army forces.
Carey said the reports also indicate the government troops withdrew but are building up to return to the village of nearly 3,000 residents.
"UNAMID calls on all parties to cease hostilities, which not only endanger the lives of innocent civilians but also further jeopardize the peace process," the mission said in a statement.
Minnawi signed a peace deal with the government in 2006. But earlier this month, the government accused Minnawi's group of violating the peace agreement by sending fighters to join other rebel groups in Darfur.
Darfur has been in turmoil since 2003, when ethnic African rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated government, accusing it of discrimination and neglect of the vast desert region. U.N. officials say up to 300,000 people died 2.7 million forced from their homes because of the conflict.
Fighting has subsided in much of Darfur, but there have been recent clashes between government troops and forces loyal to Minnawi. The uptick in violence comes as peace negotiations between rebel groups and the government in the tiny Gulf emirate of Qatar have stalled.
The government and several rebel groups, including JEM, have pledged to sign a peace accord before the end of the year, but that looks unlikely to happen.
Official JEM spokesman Ahmed Hussein Adam told the AP over the phone from Qatar that his group remains committed to the peace process and the negotiations of a cease-fire agreement despite the fact that "we have the military upper hand on the ground".
He also accused the government of dragging its feet, "hoping to try to end the conflict on their own terms." He said the government delegation postponed a meeting scheduled to be held Thursday where they were to discuss the details related the cease-fire.
The Darfur conflict is separate from the troubled southern Sudan, where a civil war raged over 20 years and where a 2005 peace deal called for a referendum on the future of the south. That vote is to be held in January and is likely to see Africa's largest country split in two.