Darfur rebels say attacked by army, war not over

KHARTOUM Thu Feb 25, 2010 6:37am EST

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir attends a news conference after the signing of an agreement in Doha February 23, 2010. REUTERS/Mohammed Dabbous

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir attends a news conference after the signing of an agreement in Doha February 23, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Mohammed Dabbous

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KHARTOUM (Reuters) - A Darfur rebel group accused the Sudanese army on Thursday of attacking its positions on the same day that the president declared the Darfur war over, and aid workers said 100,000 people had fled the surge of fighting.

The attacks took place on Wednesday in at least three areas of the mountainous Jabel Marra region in central Darfur, the rebel Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) told Reuters on Thursday.

The army denied that any clashes had taken place on Wednesday in Jabel Marra, which it said it controlled.

The SLA said government forces had attacked its positions in at least three areas in West Darfur state, including the busy market town of Deribat.

"Heavy fighting was going until late into the night," said SLA spokesman Ibrahim al-Hillu. "The government attacked in huge numbers backed up by Antonovs, helicopter gunships and MiGs (aircraft). This is the peace the government is offering."

The rebel accounts will raise questions over Khartoum's recent initiatives to end the seven-year conflict in Darfur, including a ceasefire with the region's biggest rebel group.

The French aid group Medecins du Monde said late on Wednesday it had been forced to suspend operations because of the fighting in Jabel Marra, but did not say who was involved.

President Omar Hassan al-Bashir declared the war in Darfur over on Wednesday, announcing the release of 57 rebel captives after reaching an initial settlement with the Justice and Equality Movement, Darfur's most powerful rebel force.

Bashir's government signed an agreement in Doha on Tuesday committing Sudan to reaching a final peace deal with the JEM by March 15.

SECOND GROUP REJECTS DEAL

The SLA, led by Paris-based Abdel Wahed Mohamed el-Nur, and other rebels have rejected the Doha deal, demanding that security be restored on the ground before talks begin.

The conflict in Darfur erupted in 2003 when the JEM and the SLA took up arms against the government, accusing it of leaving the area underdeveloped and marginalized.

The recent fighting showed Khartoum was trying to contain the SLA to minimize disruption in the run-up to April elections, International Crisis Group analyst Fouad Hikmat told Reuters.

If Khartoum is interested in a long-term settlement in Darfur, it will have to move beyond its bilateral deal with the JEM. "A bilateral agreement will not work unless it gains traction with other movements plus Darfur's Arabs," he said.

Medecins du Monde said people displaced by the fighting now faced the risk of meningitis epidemics and water shortages.

"Following the attack that has been launched today against the city of Deribat and fighting raging for several days in the Jabel Marra ... Medecins du Monde is forced to suspend its medical activities throughout the area," the agency said in a statement released late on Wednesday.

"Deribat, a city of 50,000 inhabitants, was attacked on Wednesday, causing massive flight of people and bringing to more than 100,000 the number of people displaced in the area."

The Sudanese army denied launching an attack. "This is not true. The Sudanese army did not attack Abdel Wahed's forces. There are no clashes in this area of Darfur. The army controls the area," an army spokesman told Reuters.

Estimates of the death toll in the seven-year Darfur conflict range from 300,000, according to the United Nations, to 10,000, according to Khartoum.

(Additional reporting by Khaled Abdelaziz; editing Tim Pearce)

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