Rebels say attack in Darfur to block Bashir visit

KHARTOUM Thu Mar 7, 2013 3:51pm EST

Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir gestures as he speaks after arriving at Khartoum Airport September 28, 2012. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir gestures as he speaks after arriving at Khartoum Airport September 28, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

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KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Rebels said they attacked government soldiers in Sudan's Darfur region as part of an offensive to stop President Omar Hassan al-Bashir visiting the territory close to the 10th anniversary of its festering conflict.

Sudan's army confirmed a clash with fighters near the capital of North Darfur state El Fasher on Wednesday, but said security forces repelled the attack.

Mostly non-Arab insurgents took up arms in the arid area in 2003, accusing Khartoum of political and economic neglect - many experts date the start of the conflict to an attack on a government base in late February that year.

Sudan's government deployed soldiers and Arab militias to crush the revolt, unleashing a wave of violence that was condemned as genocide by Washington and rights groups, a charge dismissed by Khartoum.

Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) militants said they launched attacks on Wednesday and last Saturday to show the world the conflict was still going on, and that Darfur was not secure enough for Bashir to visit.

"This was the second attack since Saturday to prevent Bashir from visiting North Darfur state and show that the conflict is not over," JEM spokesmen Gibril Adam said.

"We declare Bashir's plane as a legitimate military target," he added.

Two Sudanese newspapers reported this week Bashir had been planning a visit to North Darfur state, but said it had been postponed, without going into the reasons for the trip or the hold-up.

Bashir's spokesman told Reuters the president had not finalized any plans to visit Darfur.

Violence in Darfur has ebbed from a 2004/2005 peak but fighting has recently picked up again, forcing more than 130,000 people to leave their homes since the start of the year, according to the United Nations.

Sudan's government has regularly said the conflict is effectively over and asked donors to help rebuild the region.

Adam said JEM had killed several Sudanese soldiers in Wednesday's attack on an army convoy.

Army spokesman al-Sawarmi Khalid said the rebels had been repelled. "Some fighters attacked a police patrol which was accompanying a group of traders whose goods got damaged," he said.

"There is nothing to stop the president from visiting North Darfur state from a security point of view," he added.

JEM has joined an alliance with other rebels in Darfur and other remote states along Sudan's ill-defined border with South Sudan. The groups, which all complain of marginalization, have vowed to topple Bashir.

The International Criminal Court has charged Bashir with masterminding genocide and other atrocities during the conflict. He, and other aides facing charges, refuse to recognize the court and dismiss the accusations.

(Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz and Ulf Laessing; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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