KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudan’s government said on Tuesday the army would take a battle-scarred Darfur town by force, rejecting a rebel offer to withdraw if peacekeepers assumed control there.
U.N. officials said at least 30 people had died and thousands been forced to flee in more than two weeks of fighting between Sudanese government troops, rebels from the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and other fighters in and around the south Darfur settlement of Muhajiriya.
Fighting has escalated before an expected decision by 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.
JEM rebels offered to pull out of Muhajiriya as long as peacekeepers ran it as a military-free zone, but the Sudanese government rejected this.
Khartoum had Sunday asked joint U.N./African Union UNAMID peacekeepers to leave their base in the town ahead of a planned assault.
JEM leader Khalil Ibrahim told Reuters Tuesday he was prepared to pull his forces out of Muhajiriya following an appeal for a JEM withdrawal by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
“That is with one condition: that the army and the government and Minni Minnawi should not come there ... It should be a non-military zone for civilians and IDPs (internally displaced people) and UNAMID,” he said.
“If they come back, we will come back.”
JEM seized control in mid-January of Muhajiriya, a strategic town 80 km (50 miles) from the south Darfur capital of Nyala, from troops loyal to Minni Arcua Minnawi, the only Darfur rebel leader to sign a peace deal with Khartoum in 2006.
Sudan foreign ministry spokesman Ali al-Sadig rejected JEM’s proposal.
“This will not be acceptable to the government. There is no room for conditions from JEM. The army is determined to re-take it (Muhajiriya) by force,” he told Reuters.
UNAMID spokesman Noureddine Mezni said the UN/AU representative in Darfur, Rodolphe Adada, was planning to fly to neighboring Chad Wednesday to meet JEM commanders.
UNAMID has promised to stay in the settlement to protect 30,000 civilians, half of whom are residents, half Darfuris displaced from earlier clashes in the near six-year conflict.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said on Tuesday she was worried about the fate of civilians, adding that at least 30 people had died since January 15.
“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.”
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.
(Additional reporting by Daniel Wallis in Addis Ababa and Laura MacInnis in Geneva; Editing by Charles Dick)
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