KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Armed raiders using mortars and heavy guns seized a Sudanese army base near the Chad border in Darfur on Sunday, the second to have fallen in just over a week, international peacekeepers said.
The joint U.N./African Union UNAMID peacekeeping force said it could not confirm the identity of those who attacked the base at Umm Baru but suspected the rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) that has been active in the area in recent months.
“Umm Baru was overrun. It has fallen,” said UNAMID information director Kemal Saiki. “Our own base just a few kilometers away heard the heavy gunfire.” Saiki said the attack started at around 4pm (1300 GMT) and ended around 8.30pm.
Any JEM involvement would heighten already deeply troubled relations between Sudan and Chad, as Khartoum accuses the N’Djamena government of backing the insurgent force.
It would also be the second army base JEM has taken in the area in just over a week, marking an escalation in the recent conflict.
There was no one immediately available to comment on the fighting from JEM or Sudan’s armed forces.
Tensions have been building along Sudan’s remote border with Chad for weeks.
The two oil producers have long accused one another of supporting each other’s rebels. Chad earlier this month admitted bombing rebels inside Sudanese territory, while Khartoum says N’Djamena backs JEM, whose leaders have ethnic links with Chadian President Idriss Deby.
JEM said it seized a Sudanese army base at Kornoi, a settlement just 50 km (31 miles) west of Umm Baru, on May 16, along a road that runs toward a crossing point into Chad.
The governor of North Darfur later accused Chad of sending troops to fight alongside JEM during the battle, which he said the Sudanese government forces won.
There have been signs of JEM re-arming and re-grouping in North Darfur in recent weeks — it fought former rebels aligned with Sudan’s government around Umm Baru earlier this month.
JEM, which seeks to control all of Darfur and neighboring Kordofan, shocked many by attacking Khartoum in May 2008 before being stopped a few kilometers short of the presidential palace.
JEM commander Suleiman Sandal told Reuters earlier on Sunday that Sudanese government planes had been bombing around Kornoi and Umm Baru every day since his force’s attack on Kornoi.
Air attacks in Darfur are banned under U.N. Security Council resolutions and a series of failed ceasefires, but Khartoum has in the past reserved the right to attack JEM and other rebels who did not sign a 2006 Darfur peace deal.
Sunday’s fighting is the latest in a festering six-year conflict that started when mostly non-Arab rebels in Darfur took up arms against Sudan’s government, accusing it of neglecting the development of the region.
Estimates of the resulting death toll range from 300,000 according to the U.N.’s Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes, to 10,000 according to Khartoum.
In many places, fighting has descended into a free-for-all of tribal clashes and banditry.
Armed men stopped a vehicle carrying Nigerian peacekeepers near El Geneina, capital of west Darfur, on Saturday night, and stole their weapons, phones, radio and transport, the joint U.N./African Union force said. No one was injured in the attack.
The U.N.’s World Food Program said a contract driver was shot dead by suspected robbers in Al Deain in South Darfur on Tuesday.
In the latest of a series of diplomatic efforts in the region, Qatar’s state minister of foreign affairs, Ahmad Abdullah al-Mahmood, held talks with Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on Sunday.
Qatar is already hosting faltering negotiations between JEM and Sudan’s government, due to restart on May 27. Sudanese state media said Mahmood was also planning to visit Chad in a bid “to solve the problems between the two countries.”
The U.S. special envoy to Sudan Scott Gration set off on visits to China, Qatar, the United Kingdom and France on Saturday to build support for peace efforts in Africa’s largest country, the U.S. embassy in Khartoum said.
Editing by Philippa Fletcher