KHARTOUM A major rebel group in Sudan's strife-torn Darfur region said Monday it had captured 52 international peacekeepers, most of them from Senegal, and accused them of cooperating with the country's security service.
The joint U.N./African Union UNAMID peacekeeping force has been repeatedly caught in the crossfire during almost 10 years of fighting between government troops and insurgents in Sudan's remote west.
But the capture of more than 50 soldiers will be seen as a major setback for an already stretched mission, set up to keep the peace in a territory the size of France.
"We are holding the UNAMID soldiers because they entered our territory without permission and because they were accompanied by three Sudanese we suspect work for the security services," Gibreel Adam Bilal, a spokesman for the rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) told Reuters.
He said JEM suspected UNAMID of helping Sudan's security services to spy on territory held by the rebel group.
"If it is true that UNAMID works with Sudan security agents, then we will ask the U.N. to fire the head of the UNAMID force, he said, adding JEM was also holding peacekeepers from Yemen and Ghana.
Susan Manuel, a spokeswoman for the African Union/U.N. peacekeepers declined to comment, saying only: "There is a situation on the ground unfolding since yesterday which we're trying to resolve."
Mainly non-Arab rebels took up arms in 2003, complaining the central government had economically and politically marginalized the region. Khartoum mobilized troops and mostly-Arab militias to quell the unrest.
JEM is part of an alliance of Sudanese rebels groups in Darfur and southern border states which plan to overthrow the government of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.
International efforts to broker peace in the region have so far faltered, hindered by fighting and rebel divisions.
While violence has died down, law and order have collapsed in some areas and attacks by criminals, militias, soldiers and tribal groups have continued in recent years.
The International Criminal Court has charged Bashir with masterminding genocide and other crimes in the region, accusations Khartoum dismisses as political.
(Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz and Ulf Laessing; Editing by Andrew Heavens)