KHARTOUM, (Reuters) – Sudan’s army said it seized a key rebel stronghold in Darfur and killed 108 insurgents late on Friday, dealing a heavy blow to already floundering peace talks in the remote western region.
The rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) dismissed the report, saying it had withdrawn from the Jabel Moun area voluntarily days earlier to spare the population government bombing raids and shelling. But it said other recent clashes showed Sudan’s government had chosen to go back to war and the chances of finding a negotiated solution were “very remote”.
JEM said last week it was suspending peace talks with the government, accusing it of breaking a ceasefire and failing to honour an initial peace deal signed in the Qatari capital Doha in February.
JEM is one of two rebel forces that took up arms against Sudan’s government in 2003, saying Khartoum marginalised the region’s population and starved it of funding.
Sudan’s president Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who mobilised militias to crush the uprising, is facing International Criminal Court (ICC) charges of masterminding war crimes in the region. “There was a battle between Sudan’s Armed Forces and JEM yesterday,” army spokesman Al-Sawarmi Khaled told Reuters on Saturday. “There were about 108 killed from JEM and we took about 61 prisoners alive.” He said government soldiers also were killed in the attack near Chad’s border but did not have numbers.
JEM said its troops already had moved out to different areas in North and South Darfur states, as well as the neighbouring oil-producing South Kordofan.
Senior JEM official al-Tahir al-Feki said JEM was still prepared to return to talks if Khartoum and international mediators agreed to comply with a list of demands, including the honouring of a previous ceasefire and the recognition of JEM as the sole rebel player in negotiations.
“But I don’t see any real prospect of negotiations or a peaceful settlement. Because the other side does not want it … Sudan has chosen war against peace and we are up for it … This is a reality. It is a state of war,” he said, adding that JEM’s main negotiator had left Doha earlier on Friday.
In another sign of the growing unrest, Sudan’s police said its officers fought off a JEM attack on a commercial convoy between the town of Al Deain and the capital of south Darfur Nyala on Thursday.
The fighting killed 27 members of Sudan’s Central Reserve Police, who were guarding the vehicles, and 30 JEM troops, police spokesman Mohamed Abdul Majid said in a statement.
JEM told Reuters its troops came across Sudanese army forces guarding a convoy of military vehicles and ammunition trucks and said the soldiers had fired the first shots.
Sudanese authorities have accused JEM of attacking villages in north and south Darfur in recent weeks. International sources, who asked not to be named, said JEM had destroyed mobile phone masts, cutting off communications along a corridor southeast towards South Kordofan. JEM denied the reports.
JEM signed a ceasefire and initial peace deal with Khartoum during talks brokered by the government of neighbouring Chad in February. Chad’s President Idriss Deby shares ethnic links with JEM’s leadership.
Further talks quickly stalled when JEM objected to Khartoum’s decision to start separate discussions with another rebel grouping, the Liberation and Justice Movement.
Sudan’s Darfur negotiator Amin Hassan Omar told state media he would travel to Doha on Saturday to prepare for talks with the LJM, saying JEM was no longer serious about negotiations.
Washington accuses Khartoum of committing genocide during the seven-year conflict which has killed 300,000 people according to one U.N. estimate. Khartoum says 10,000 have died.