October 8, 2007 (KHARTOUM) — Sudanese government troops and allied militia on Monday attacked a town belonging to the only Darfur rebel faction to sign a 2006 peace deal, the faction 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 spokesman al-Tayyib Khamis said the assault 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.
SLA Minnawi’s military spokesman Mohamed Hamid Dirbeen called it a “stab in the back of the Darfur peace agreement”.
“There are many victims in the town, but we do not have exact numbers of wounded and killed,” he added.
Bashir said the assault was a continuation of a Sudanese army offensive on the former rebel town of Haskanita in southeast Darfur, which was 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.
In New York, Jean-Marie Guehenno, the head of the U.N. peacekeeping department, said the situation on the ground had deteriorated in recent weeks.
“These reports when you put them together … there is a serious risk of the Darfur situation going beyond Darfur,” Guehenno said.
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. Since then some 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million have been driven from their homes.
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-U.N.-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 against AU forces in Darfur.
The AU asked the government to secure the area while they withdrew, leaving no international observers in the region beset by government-rebel fighting. 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.
“Around 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.