KHARTOUM A Sudanese army assault killed at least 45 people in the Darfur town of Muhajiriya, where bodies littered the streets between burned out buildings, forces who control the area said on Tuesday.
"Until now the number of dead civilians are at least 40, with 80 missing and a large number of injured," the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) said in a statement sent to Reuters.
It said five SLA soldiers were killed and eight injured.
The SLA faction led by Minni Arcua Minnawi was the only one of three rebel negotiating groups to sign a May 2006 peace deal with Khartoum and became part of the government.
"Bodies are still lying around the town as this statement is written," SLA Minnawi's military spokesman Mohamed Hamid Dirbeen said. "Some of the victims looked like they had been executed."
Reports from the town said the market and many houses were burnt after army vehicles tore through it on Monday.
AU force commander Martin Luther Agwai, who will also command a 26,000-strong joint U.N.-AU force due to take over from the AU, had earlier said government planes bombed the town.
He later said his troops had mistaken heavy artillery for aerial bombardment and said although Antonov planes were flying overhead during the attack, they had not released bombs.
Rebels, however, say government planes did drop bombs. The Sudanese army was not immediately available to comment.
Some analysts say the recent surge in violence in Darfur is an effort by warring parties to gain land before AU-U.N. mediated peace talks in Libya this month. Others said Khartoum may be trying to drive rebels from the peace process.
Agwai said it was not clear what was behind the fighting in Muhajiriya, but initial reports indicated it could be tribal rivalries or a spillover from other government-rebel clashes.
Minnawi's group called the attack a "stab in the back of the Darfur peace agreement".
One rebel group, the Sudan Liberation Army-Unity Leadership (SLA-Unity) threatened to boycott the talks in Libya and said it would "not be bound to any commitment to ceasefire in Darfur" if the Sudanese government "continued its open war".
"STAB IN BACK"
Muhajiriya, which is home to about 5,000 residents, also hosts more than 44,500 Darfuris displaced by violence elsewhere. About 29 international and Sudanese aid workers who had been trapped in the town by the fighting were flown out on Tuesday.
Mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms in early 2003 accusing Khartoum of neglect. Khartoum mobilised militias to quell the revolt, who now stand accused of war crimes. An estimated 200,000 people have died in the violence and 2.5 million have fled their homes. Khartoum denies the death toll.
Monday's raid was the latest in a series of deadly attacks that threaten to undermine efforts to bring more of Darfur's armed factions into the peace process and make way for the arrival of U.N. and AU troops to take over from 7,000 AU forces.
On September 29, the AU base in Haskanita was attacked and destroyed, killing 10 peacekeepers. Rebels were suspected of being behind the attack on the AU base.
In the following days, while the government controlled Haskanita, the former rebel-held town was burned to the ground and thousands of residents were sent fleeing.
SLA humanitarian coordinator Suleiman Jamous said 105 people died when government forces and allied militia razed the town.
On Tuesday Jamous said Sudanese army and militia were massing in Tine and Kutum, the last main government-held towns before northern rebel territories.
Agwai called for calm ahead of the October 27 peace talks. "It is sad that as we are looking forward to Libya that people have engaged themselves in this activity causing destruction and loss of lives," Agwai said.
Analysts said the fact that rebel factions were suspected of attacking the AU Haskanita base gave Khartoum cover for an offensive to garner as much land as possible before the talks.
"The upshot of this strategy, of course, is that it becomes more difficult by the hour for any rebel faction or leader to show up in Sirte, Libya in 19 days," said U.S. academic Eric Reeves.
"Khartoum will of course show up in Gaddafi's home town, and make much of the fact that 'the rebels refuse to negotiate'."
SLA founder Abdel Wahed Mohamed el-Nur has said he will not attend talks until a U.N. force could protect his people in Darfur. After this week's violence, some rival rebel commanders began to privately concur with his position.