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KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudanese security officers prevented U.N. and African Union peacekeepers from visiting a rebel-held Darfur town Tuesday, amid growing fears of clashes over the settlement, U.N. officials said.
A high-level fact-finding mission from the joint U.N./AU UNAMID force was kept waiting for hours at the airport in El Fasher, the capital of north Darfur, then told they could not fly to Muhajiriya, said a U.N. officer who asked not to be named.
Tensions are high in Muhajiriya, where Sudanese government forces have vowed to flush out fighters from Darfur's rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), which seized the town in mid-January.
Sudan's government Sunday made an unprecedented request for a 196-strong unit of UNAMID peacekeepers to withdraw from their base in the south Darfur town, ahead of a planned government assault.
UNAMID has promised to stay in the settlement to protect 30,000 civilians - half of them residents, half of them Darfuris displaced from earlier clashes in the near six-year conflict.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay raised alarm over the fate of civilians in Muhajiriya, saying that since January 15 some 30,000 people had been uprooted and at least 30 had died there.
"The fighting is reported to have involved ground offensives and indiscriminate aerial bombardment by government forces that failed to distinguish between civilian communities and military targets," Pillay said. "JEM forces are also reported to have deliberately placed themselves in areas heavily populated by civilians, therefore jeopardizing their safety."
Fighting has escalated in the build-up to a looming decision from the International Criminal Court on whether to issue an arrest warrant against Sudan's president Omar Hassan al-Bashir on charges of orchestrating genocide in Darfur.
International experts say 200,000 people have died and more than 2.5 million have been driven from their homes since mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms against Khartoum in 2003, accusing it of neglecting the development of the region. Khartoum, which says 10,000 have died, accuses the Western media of exaggerating the conflict.
Tuesday's fact-finding mission, which included UNAMID's deputy force commander, was hoping to talk to residents and peacekeepers in the town. A U.N. official said Sudanese officials blocked it, citing security concerns.
No one was immediately available for comment from Sudan's armed forces or security services.
UNAMID and JEM rebels reported government planes bombed land outside Muhajiriya Monday, causing thousands of residents to take shelter around the peacekeeping base. UNAMID said blasts had been heard from outside the town again Tuesday morning, but peacekeepers had been unable to confirm what caused them.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Monday called on JEM forces to withdraw from Muhajiriya and for Sudan's government to show restraint.
Additional reporting by Daniel Wallis in Addis Ababa and Laura MacInnis in Geneva, editing by Mark Trevelyan