KHARTOUM, (Reuters) – Sudanese forces launched ground and air attacks on two rebel bases in North Darfur on Saturday, killing an unknown number of people, insurgent groups said.
Leaders from three rebel groups said government troops, backed by militias, helicopters and Antonov planes, attacked their bases in Disa and Birmaza, close to a key transport route.
Sudanese armed forces officials were not available for comment. A spokesman for the joint U.N./African Union UNAMID peacekeeping force in Darfur said commanders on the ground were checking the rebel reports.
The attacks came at a highly sensitive time in Darfur after the International Criminal Court moved to indict President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for genocide in the remote western region.
Rebel groups have accused the government of launching a string of raids in North Darfur over the last two months, even as Khartoum stepped up diplomatic efforts to get the global court’s move postponed or quashed. “They are attacking us right now. There has been heavy firing,” said Ibrahim al-Helwu, from the branch of the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) led by Abdel Wahed Mohamed el-Nur. “Two Antonovs have been bombing and there have been four helicopters opening fire on us. They have many militias with them on camels and horses. There are many civilians who have fled the area,” added al-Helwu, speaking from Disa. He said a “big number” of people had been killed, but it was too early to release confirmed figures.
Abu Bakar Kadu, a commander from the SLM’s Unity faction, said officers in the area told him government forces had attacked Disa and Birmaza, north of the town of Kutum.
Bahar Abu Garda, chairman of the insurgent United Resistance Front, also said his men had been fighting alongside SLM-Unity.
Rebel groups accused the Sudanese government of launching a large-scale assault to wipe out rebel bases in July and August.
Observers have said Khartoum was trying to claim as much territory as it can ahead of new peace negotiations with the new joint U.N.-African Union mediator for Darfur Djibril Bassole.
Sherif Harir, a field commander with SLM-Unity, said on Saturday Khartoum was also focusing on North Darfur to control key transport routes between Sudan and neighbouring Chad and Libya, and to clear rebels from potentially lucrative oil sites.
North Darfur is part of Sudan’s oil Block 12A operated by a consortium led by the Saudi Arabian company al-Qahtani.
International experts say more than five years of fighting in Darfur has killed 200,000 people and forced more than 2.5 million to flee their homes.
The fighting started after mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms in early 2003 accusing the central government in Khartoum of neglect. The Sudanese government, which claims the international media has exaggerated the conflict, mobilised militias to quell the revolt.
Darfur rebel groups splintered into numerous factions after a failed peace deal with Sudan’s government in 2006.