Showing off spoils of war, Sudan claims progress in Darfur

Tom Little

Nyala (Sudan) (AFP) - Stacked with rockets and machineguns, dozens of trucks seized from rebels lined the main square of South Darfur's state capital. Proof, Khartoum says, that its forces dealt insurgents a knockout blow.

Troops in camouflage and draped with ammunition pouches chatted on top of the trucks in Nyala, where Sudan was showing off the spoils from a major clash with the rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).

"It was a battle beyond description, a decisive victory," said Major Nimr Khalifa Abdel Hafiz, an officer with the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) who took part in the clash near the Tullus area south of Nyala on April 26.

For President Omar al-Bashir's government, the battle was a major step forward in its fight in Darfur, which has been engulfed by violence since ethnic insurgents rebelled against Khartoum's rule 12 years ago.

But rebels insist the conflict is far from over, with JEM spokesman Jibril Bilal telling AFP: "We will never stop fighting these criminals as long as they are fighting our people in Darfur."

And analysts say the tactics used by Bashir -- who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur -- are likely to fuel continued unrest.

Darfur's insurgency was launched in 2003, with the rebels complaining of economic and political marginalisation by the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum.

Bashir unleashed a brutal counter-offensive using Arab militia and the military. The United Nations says the conflict has killed 300,000 and forced 2.5 million from their homes.

- 'Increasingly counterproductive' -

Despite attempts to reach peace agreements and the deployment of a joint United Nations-African Union peacekeeping force in 2007, violence in Darfur "continues unabated," the International Crisis Group said in April.

In its latest bid to end the insurgency, Khartoum last year deployed the RSF, which has claimed several victories but has been accused by rights groups of abuses and of displacing civilians.

Khartoum's "reliance on a militia-centred counter-insurgency strategy is increasingly counterproductive –- not least because it stokes and spreads communal violence," the ICG said.

But Major Hafiz was bullish about the RSF's victory at Tullus -- which came only a few weeks before the start of Sudan's rainy season, when there is usually a lull in fighting.

"Our forces captured 164 land cruisers mounted with all sorts of weapons," he told reporters on the government-organised tour of the city.

The military says JEM forces sheltering in South Sudan -- which broke from Sudan in 2011 and which Khartoum accuses of harbouring rebels -- crossed the border to try to launch an attack in Darfur.

RSF troops laid ambushes along roads in South Darfur, hitting the JEM convoy at Tullus, killing and capturing an unknown number of rebels.

JEM denied it had been based in South Sudan, but Bilal made a rare admission that its forces had "lost a lot of troops and ground leaders" as well as "up to 40 to 50 vehicles" in the ambush.

- 'We have fought enough' -

He said JEM -- as well as other groups from Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile allied to it in the Sudan Revolutionary Front -- would keep fighting until Khartoum offered a comprehensive solution to the country's myriad problems.

Peace talks broke down in December but Bashir, who was elected to another five-year term last month after a quarter-century in office, has vowed to launch a national dialogue after his inauguration next month.

It is unclear which members of the opposition and of the fractured and splintered rebel movements will participate, and analysts are not holding out much hope.

The conflict in Darfur has been further complicated by violent disputes between the region's varied ethnic groups over resources and land.

The Arab Rezeigat and Maaliya tribes clashed in East Darfur's Abu Karinka locality on Monday, tribal sources said, with an unknown number of casualties. And clashes between the Fallata and Salamat ethnic groups in South Darfur in March left a number of people dead after a cattle theft.

The ICG warned that with mounting ethnic and tribal violence, some of Darfur's conflicts "are too local to solve by national dialogue only".

Amid the trucks and troops in the square in Nyala, Mohamed Ibrahim Ishag said JEM and its allies had "tried to ruin Darfur".

But the school teacher said more than a government counter-offensive was needed to end the violence.

"The dead from both sides are our people, the people of Darfur. We have fought enough," he said.