KHARTOUM Two leaders from the main rebel alliance opposing Sudan's president and 15 members of their group were sentenced to death in absentia on Thursday, their lawyer said, a move that will raise the stakes in fighting in southern regions.
Malik Agar, who was governor of Sudan's remote southern Blue Nile state before taking up arms, and Yasir Arman, who stood against Sudan President Omar Hassan al-Bashir in 2010 elections, were both condemned, lawyer Altujani Hassan told Reuters.
Agar is now the head, and Arman the secretary general, of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement - North (SPLM-N), particularly active in Blue Nile and oil-producing South Kordofan regions.
It is part of an umbrella group, The Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF), also covering strife-torn Darfur in the west, that says it is fighting to bring in democratic reforms and topple Bashir. Khartoum has branded the rebels terrorists.
The sentences, ordered by a court in Singa, capital of Sudan's Sennar state, came days after the African Union adjourned talks it was brokering between the SPLM-N and Sudan's government, saying they were deadlocked.
Fighting between the sides has already displaced or severely affected more than 900,000 people, according to the United Nations.
"The judge Abdelmonem Youness sentenced (them) over staging a war against the state... and terrorism," Altujani Hassan told Reuters.
SPLM-N includes many fighters who sided with South Sudanese rebels in decades of civil war fuelled by ethnicity, oil and ideology that ended in a 2005 peace deal.
But they were left inside Sudan when that agreement paved the way to the secession of South Sudan in 2011, around the time the latest fighting broke out in South Kordofan.
Both Agar and Arman were senior members of South Sudan's rebel SPLM, which is now that country's ruling party.
Khartoum has accused South Sudan of backing the rebels in South Kordofan and Blue Nile - states on the border between the two countries. South Sudan's government has dismissed the accusation.
(Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz, writing by Asma Alsharif; Editing by Andrew Heavens)