KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudan’s Darfur region is no longer in a state of war and only has one rebel group capable of mounting limited military campaigns, the head of the area’s peacekeeping force said as he ended his tour of duty.
The statement was quickly dismissed by Darfur insurgents on Thursday who said they were armed and preparing to launch new attacks on Sudan government troops in the near future.
The commander of the joint U.N./African Union UNAMID peacekeeping force, Martin Luther Agwai, told reporters the conflict had now descended into banditry and “very low intensity” engagements that could still blight the remote western region for years without a peace deal.
“As of today, I would not say there is a war going on in Darfur,” he said in a briefing in Khartoum late on Wednesday.
“Militarily there is not much. What you have is security issues more now. Banditry ... people trying to resolve issues over water and land at a local level. But real war as such, I think we are over that.”
The six-year Darfur conflict has pitted pro-government militias and troops against mostly non-Arab rebels, who took up arms in 2003, demanding better representation and accusing Khartoum of neglecting the development of the region.
Khartoum says 10,000 have died in Darfur, while the United Nations puts the death count at up to 300,000.
Agwai became the latest senior figure to appear to play down the level of violence in Darfur, where the conflict has mobilized activists who accuse Khartoum of genocide.
Mostly Western campaigners and some diplomats were angered by comments in April by UNAMID’s political leader Rodolphe Adada, who said Darfur had subsided into a “low-intensity conflict”; and by U.S. Sudan envoy Scott Gration in June who said he had seen the “remnants of genocide” in the region, stopping short, they said, of describing a current genocide.
Agwai said the fierce fighting of the early years of the conflict had subsided as rebel groups split into rival groups.
“Apart from JEM, I do not see any other group that can launch an attack on the ground,” he said referring to the Justice and Equality Movement, a rebel force that launched an unprecedented attack on Khartoum last year.
Agwai said JEM could still fight, but did not have the manpower to hold territory. The Nigerian general added there was still a chance full blown conflict would resume.
JEM has clashed a number of times with the Sudanese army in the past months, and has said it withdrew voluntarily on two occasions to protect locals from government air attacks.
JEM leader Khalil Ibrahim on Thursday told Reuters there had been a period of calm in Darfur. “But this is the quiet period before the storm. In the coming days he (Agwai) will find out he is wrong. He is just talking like a politician and trying to show he was a success in Darfur.”
Ibrahim said there were fewer battles now than in the early days of the conflict. “The quality of war has changed. The fighting is more intense. You don’t say there is no war because there is no fighting for a week.”
Jerry Fowler, head of Save Darfur, a U.S.-based advocacy group, said, “Darfur remains a very dangerous place” — above all for the millions of displaced people in camps.
He said that as recently as February there was a major battle between JEM and Sudanese government forces around the town of Muhajiriya.
Agwai, who is due to leave Sudan on Thursday after two years at the head of the peacekeeping force, said his main regret was the lack of progress in getting a peace deal.
“I really didn’t have any peace so I couldn’t command a force that could really keep the peace,” he said, adding that Darfur’s localized insecurity could continue “for years” without a settlement. Negotiations between JEM and Khartoum in Doha are stalled and the founder of Darfur’s rebel Sudan Liberation Movement is refusing to talk.
Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau in New York