Darfur rebels, government forces clash in Sudan

Sunday, May 11, 2008

KHARTOUM, Sudan -- Hundreds of rebels from war-ravaged Darfur clashed with Sudanese security forces on the doorstep of the capital Saturday in a widening of the five-year-old conflict.

It was the first foray into the seat of the Sudanese government by a rebel group once confined to the western region, which is scarred by the struggle between the ethnic African rebels and the Arab-dominated central government.

The country's interior minister said government forces successfully "chased" away the rebels by nightfall, about three hours after the first outbreak of violence, and killed a rebel leader and his aide. State television showed footage of the fighters in handcuffs and soldiers driving confiscated jeeps through empty streets, saluting colleagues standing at attention.

But a rebel leader denied his fighters suffered heavy casualties and said some took up positions inside Khartoum, while others remained in its twin city, Omdurman.

"They will continue their mission," said rebel spokesman Ahmed Hussain. "They successfully destroyed a lot of tanks."

TV footage showed burning trucks, smoke billowing over Omdurman and at least two bodies sprawled in a dusty street and slumped in the front seat of a convertible jeep.

"I saw dead people in the streets and cars burned," said Hatem, an Omdurman resident who refused to give his last name, fearing government reprisal.

With just a few thousand members, the Justice and Equality Movement is outnumbered by and far less equipped than Sudan's military, believed to be more than 100,000 strong, but the group still represents the most significant military threat to the Sudanese government in Darfur.

Residents and government officials said it appeared that JEM had been repelled or retreated from Khartoum's edge late Saturday. But the scale of the government's initial reaction -- deploying heavily on residential streets, setting up checkpoints, imposing an overnight curfew -- suggested Sudan's powerful military was shaken by the assault.

"Militarily they can't succeed. But they can put everyone on notice," said Eric Reeves, a Sudan researcher and analyst at Smith College. He said the rebels' aim was to spread panic in Khartoum and through the army ranks, stir up opposition to the government and draw attention to their fight in Darfur, some 620 miles from the capital.

"It brings a lot of pressure to bear on the regime," Reeves said.

The clashes came after days of government warnings that JEM planned to target Khartoum. Troops cut off access to bridges linking Khartoum to Omdurman, and armored vehicles patrolled streets. The government later extended a curfew, saying some rebel members shed their uniforms and could be hiding among civilians. Residents reported power outages in Khartoum.

In Washington, a spokesman for the National Security Council said the Bush administration was concerned and monitoring the situation.

"We urge both sides to cease hostilities, whether it is the rebel group or the government," said spokesman Gordon Johndroe. "We want to see calm and order restored."

Southern Sudan leader and First Vice President Salva Kiir also urged a return to dialogue and condemned the assault. Speaking in Arabic rather than his local tribal dialect -- an unusual gesture apparently aimed at reaching out to the rebels and the government -- Kiir said violence will only hurt Darfur's plight.

"Darfur is a political issue and should be solved through negotiations, and expediting them," Kiir told reporters in Juba, southern Sudan's capital.

Sudan's military issued a statement saying that "elements" of JEM had infiltrated northern Omdurman. "Your heroic forces are confronting them now," is said, urging citizens to come forward

with information.

The statement said the Sudanese forces had stopped the main advance of the JEM forces in neighboring province Kordofan, but that a few had reached Khartoum.

JEM leader Abu Zumam, however, told AP by telephone that hundreds of his fighters had reached Omdurman and engaged government forces. Gunfire could be heard in the background.

"We entered Omdurman by force," he said, adding that his army of some 700 vehicles planned to take over the state radio building in the city.

JEM once confined its activities to Darfur, where the rebels took up arms against the central government in 2003 complaining of discrimination and neglect.

More than 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million have been chased from their homes in Darfur since fighting broke out. Many of the worst atrocities in the war have been blamed on the janjaweed militia of Arab nomads allied with the government.

Attempts to revive peace talks between Sudan and rebel groups have failed to stem the violence. Rebel groups accuse the Khartoum regime of stonewalling the deployment of a United Nations peacekeeping force that would try to establish security before peace talks.

"This regime ... is right now imposing a military and security solution to a very political problem," said the rebel spokesman Hussain, speaking by telephone from London. "The government refuses all the political means and measures to resolve the problem."

He said the government continued its attacks in Darfur, the latest of which was on a northern Darfur school and nearby market where 12 people, half of them children, were killed last week. The attack was condemned by the United Nations.

On Saturday, the country's interior minister accused neighboring Chad of supporting what he called "mercenaries" who aimed to hit Khartoum. "Chad wants to hit Sudan in the heart," Interior Minister Ibrahim Mahmoud Hamed told state TV.

Sudan also accused Chad of attacking a border area to provide cover for JEM's attacks against the capital. Chadian government officials were not immediately available to comment.

Sudanese army spokesman Brigadier Gen. Osman al-Agbash said Chadian forces on Friday attacked the border and were repelled with "heavy losses on the attacking Chadian forces," he said according to the official state news agency SUNA.

Relations between the two countries, which share a long arid border region home to numerous armed groups have long been strained.

Chad has accused Sudanese authorities of arming rebels who launched a failed assault February on the Chadian capital, N'Djamena. The rebels reached the gate of the presidential palace, but fled toward Sudan after Chad's army repelled them in fighting that left hundreds dead.

Sudan, meanwhile, has repeatedly accused Chad of supporting the rebellion in Darfur.

Though the two countries signed peace agreement in March promising to prevent armed groups from operating along each other's shared borders, the accusations have continued unabated.

El Deeb contributed to this report from Cairo, Egypt.

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