By SOMINI SENGUPTA
THABIT, Sudan, Dec 1, 2004 (New York Times) — Not long ago, Abdou Ismail, a wiry, tough-talking original member of the rebel group that calls itself the Sudan Liberation Army, was the field commander in charge of this vast valley at the strategic gates of the state capital.
Today, he is the rebels’ highest-ranking emissary to the African Union Cease-Fire Commission in El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur State. He is no longer charged with organizing stealth attacks on government posts across Darfur. His job has become a more delicate one. He is now responsible for explaining, justifying and mopping up the damage done by his fighters in the field.
These days, much damage control is needed. Mr. Ismail’s group, known here as the S.L.A. and believed to be the largest of the three Darfur insurgent groups, has lately come under criticism for its belligerence on the ground: kidnappings, hit-and-run attacks on soft targets like Sudanese police stations and demands placed on relief workers trying to deliver aid to rebel-held territory.
Last week orders came from the rebel camp here for one of the most brazen attacks on Tawila, a nearby government-held town. After nearly 30 police officers were killed in an early morning raid, the government in Khartoum responded swiftly with an airstrike on Tawila, then bombed Thabit, a once bustling market town, to ashes. An incinerated donkey lay among the ruins.
To the dismay of rebel leaders, officials from the United Nations and African Union squarely blamed the rebels for breaking a cease-fire with their strike on Tawila. The government, long opposed to any foreign military intervention, coyly suggested that more African Union troops were needed to rein in the insurgents.
On this scorching afternoon, as scores of scruffy, yellow-turbaned rebels emerged from the sand, Mr. Ismail, 33, seized upon the presence of the foreign news media to buff his group’s reputation. Yes, he acknowledged, the local commander here had ordered the Tawila strike, but only because pro-government militias had harassed local civilians. Yes, kidnappings had been reported, but no more would occur, he said. No more attacks on civilians either, and his field commanders had been ordered not to put up roadblocks against aid workers, he said.
As if to drive home the point, his men here presented to the African Union monitors a man whom they accused of a roadside robbery in the name of the rebels. It was not the first time, African Union officials said, that bandits had identified themselves as rebels. On this morning, the robbery suspect, wearing a stained white robe and missing a few front teeth, quietly admitted to the crime but said he had nothing to do with the S.L.A. Mr. Ismail was keen to drive that point home.
“I want to tell the international community, all those bandit groups, they don’t have any relation to the S.L.A,” he said. “We are a movement. We are fighting for our people.”
Mr. Ismail represents a question that has perplexed outside observers and mediators: just what does his movement want politically and how does it intend to reach its objective through its gunmen?
The recent reports of bad behavior by the S.L.A. and confusion over its motivations threaten to complicate peace talks for an insurgency that has enjoyed tacit sympathy from abroad, thanks to the scorched earth policies of its enemy government in Khartoum.
“They had a lot of sympathy in the international community,” Jan Pronk, the United Nations secretary general’s top envoy for Sudan, said in an interview after two surprise attacks by the rebels, one in Tawila, another on a police post in a refugee camp farther south. “They’re losing it at the moment.”
Mr. Pronk described the rebel organization as “loose, differentiated, internally divided.”
It remains unclear whether the recent attacks were coordinated and ordered from on high to gain political leverage at peace talks next week in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, or whether they reflected the zeal of local commanders operating on their own. Nearly two years after the insurgency began, its political demands remain vague – beyond claims for a greater share of Sudan’s economic and political spoils. Moreover, splits are inevitable with its cousin rebel factions – the Justice and Equality Movement, with its Islamist bent, and the National Movement for Reform and Democracy, a new breakaway faction whose ideological motivations remain murky. But the differences among the groups have yet to emerge clearly.
The government has been threatened with stiff penalties for its part in the Darfur conflict – namely, economic penalties dangled by the United Nations Security Council. A United Nations Commission of Inquiry is looking into whether the violence in western Sudan constitutes genocide, and there has been continuing criticism of human rights violations against civilians in Darfur. But the options available to the rest of the world to punish an insurrection are far more limited.
The S.L.A. has been accused of stalling at the last round of African Union-mediated peace talks in Abuja. Despite promises, it has yet to disclose the location of its fighters, on security grounds. Privately, some aid workers and diplomats accuse the S.L.A. of sowing the seeds of further conflict by acts of provocation. For instance, the rebel group has blocked the seasonal migration routes of a large and powerful nomadic Arab tribe just south of here. To date, the leaders of the tribe have remained neutral in the Darfur conflict, but blocking the movement of their animals and thus threatening their livelihood and their way of life could be disastrous.
“You’re broadening the conflict base,” said one Western diplomat. “The S.L.A. knows what they are doing.”
Another school of thought suggests that the rebel commanders at the top have no clue what their commanders are doing across the region. “There’s an obvious disconnect,” said another senior Western diplomat. “This is not a modern military.”
Mr. Ismail denies that charge. “If we want to attack all towns in one day, we will do that,” he said.
As for Tawila, Mr. Ismail said his local commander acted on his authority to order the strike. “The leader of a battalion can take a decision,” he said. “Afterward he will tell me and I will say, ‘Good.’ In this case I said, ‘Stop and leave this place.’ I gave him three hours.”
He ticked off his instructions: “Withdraw from Tawila, not to attack government of Sudan positions unless they attack. I don’t like to hear they capture any civilian trucks. Free movement to international N.G.O.’s,” nongovernmental organizations delivering aid.
Mr. Ismail was eager to show journalists in Thabit an inventory of government misdeeds. Bombings by the government Antonov warplanes had left seven craters. Four civilians were killed and 17 others hurt. As for the rebel assault on Tawila two days before, the gunmen here said it was justified retaliation for pro-government Arab militia attacks.
“I didn’t need permission from my superiors because we are defending civilians,” the local commander, Ahmed Mur Abdallah, declared. “The government started it first. I did it because of the civilians. I know what I’m doing.”