March 25, 2013 (KHARTOUM) – A rebel group seized 31 displaced people at gunpoint on Sunday, who were travelling to a refugee conference under the escort of UN peacekeepers in Sudan’s Darfur region.
According to a statement from the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), a convoy of three buses was transporting the internally displaced persons (IDP’s) when they were stopped by armed men wearing military uniforms in seven jeeps with mounted guns.
UNAMID said the IDP’s were forcibly taken to an unknown location, despite opposition by peacekeepers.
The incident occurred about 6.20pm (local time) between the Arga crossing point and Kass locality, a border area between Central and South Darfur states.
Rebel leader Abdel Wahid Mohammed al-Nur, who heads a faction of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA-AW), later confirmed his group was responsible for the attack.
In comments made to Radio Dabanga, he claimed the arrests were legitimate, saying the group were mostly government security agents posing as civilians. He told the station he had evidence, including documents and ID cards, proving those arrested were not genuine IDPs.
The claims apparently contradict comments made by Nur and quoted by AFP that the arrests were a “big mistake”.
“I gave (an) order to release these people, civilians, immediately”, he said, according to AFP.
There remain conflicting reports about the circumstances of the attack and the fate of the 31 people taken into custody.
UNAMID said no official sources from the Sudanese government had confirmed their release, and the agency has been unable to contact any of the displaced people to independently verify the reports.
UNAMID said it was “sparing no effort to ascertain the current situation of the IDPs”, who were en route from Zalingei, in Central Darfur, to attend the two-day conference in the South Darfur capital Nyala to discuss the situation of IDPs and refugees, including the issue of voluntary return.
“UNAMID condemns this incident and stands ready to escort the IDPs to [the] Nyala conference, and to provide any other assistance”, the agency said in its statement.
The group was being escorted by UNAMID at the request of the Darfur Regional Authority (DRA), which is sponsoring the event ahead of the upcoming Donors’ Conference in Doha.
The chairman of the DRA, Tijani Sissi, condemned UMAMID peacekeepers following the latest incident for handing over the displaced people “without the slightest resistance”.
In his opening speech on Monday at the Koral Hotel in Nyala where the conference is being held under heavy security, a visibly angry Sissi suggested that the mission had strayed from its core mandate of protecting civilians and was now in need of protection itself.
He went on to day that UNAMID is now a burden on Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and Darfuri people. Similar criticism came from Sudan 2nd VP Al-Haj Adam Youssef who was in attendance at the conference,
AFP confirmed more than 270 IDPs from across Darfur had safely reached the meeting venue, along with around 70 refugees, mostly from neighboring Chad.
NOT THE RIGHT TIME
The DRA’s decision to host the conference sparked widespread criticism in the lead-up to the event, with refugees in Chad and several leaders from IDP communities within Sudan refusing to attend, saying now was not the right time to hold talks given the tenuous security situation on the ground.
Critics also questioned the logic of inviting refugees to a summit on voluntary return when murders, rapes, displacement and banditry continue to undermine any hopes for peaceful resettlement in the region’s abandoned villages.
The UN estimates that 1.4 million people are still living in camps a decade after rebel groups took up arms against the Sudanese government seeking greater freedoms and an end to northern Arab dominance.