The Lord's Resistance Army, one of the most feared guerrilla groups in Africa, has moved into Darfur, one of the continent's most troubled regions, intelligence sources in Sudan say.
The unexpected move by the LRA comes just as the war-weary west of Sudan recedes from world headlines and after the UN mission there had tentatively declared the fighting to be over. The possible arrival of a messianic cult notorious for rape, civilian massacres and the enslavement of child soldiers threatens that fragile peace. The LRA has been terrorising the north of the Democratic Republic of Congo for 18 months but the bulk of its forces have now crossed into southern Darfur, a senior official in the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) told The Independent.
"We have confirmed that the LRA are there and they have clashed with the local population," said Major-General Kuol Deim Kuol.
He said the LRA had moved into the area to stock up on weapons and supplies and accused the Sudanese government in Khartoum of sponsoring the group. The south has long accused Khartoum of funding militias to destabilise the region but the UN and Sudan experts are both taking the latest reports seriously.
The rebels, led by the self-styled prophet Joseph Kony, have waged a campaign of terror in central Africa for two decades. When The Independent visited the dense jungle on the border area between DRC and Sudan last year, refugees who had fled from LRA attacks spoke of bodies strewn over the forest floor, people burned to death in their huts, women raped and children marched into the bush in gangs.
The group's arrival in Darfur comes at a critical juncture and threatens to undermine efforts to build on an end to major clashes in the region.
The Sudan analyst John Ashworth said: "Having people like the LRA there could exacerbate the conflict. If they are a proxy of Khartoum, they could be used in Darfur in the same way as the Janjaweed. This could be mutually beneficial to both groups."
The Janjaweed, an Arab militia on camels and horseback, were drafted in by Khartoum to deal with disgruntled Darfuri groups who took up arms against the government in 2003.
International experts say that at least 200,000 people were killed in the six years of fighting and almost three million were forced to flee their homes. The Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has been indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court, which is also after Kony.
General Deim Kuol said that a combat reconnaissance unit from the southern Sudan forces was tracking the LRA rebels, who crossed into the region from the densely forested frontier where DRC, Sudan and Central African Republic converge.
"The LRA is in Darfur for two purposes," he said from Juba in south Sudan. "They are travelling with their families, wives and children, and have taken them there for protection. They are also wanting ammunition and weapons from the [main] Sudan army."
While there is no independent confirmation, the SPLA official said Kony's own family were among the group, including dozens of the 80 wives he is believed to have taken while living in the bush. Kony is believed to have been in hiding in Central African Republic.
Mr Ashworth, said the reported movements "made sense" and that there were few informed observers left who did not believe that Khartoum was supporting Kony and the LRA. "It's credible in so much as it makes sense based on past experience. Everyone in southern Sudan believes that Khartoum is supporting them."
The largest country in Africa, Sudan was wracked by a lengthy and disastrous north-south civil war that ended in 2005 and tensions between the Arab-dominated north and Christian south have reached a new pitch in recent months, with clashes over oil and a politically charged census.
Salah Gosh, an adviser to President Bashir said that the SPLA claim that Khartoum was sponsoring the LRA was untrue. He accused the SPLA of "fabrications" and "political manoeuvres" to "distort the image of the Sudanese army".
However, General Deim Kuol insisted that the SPLA had "hard evidence" of its claims. He said that reconnaissance units had found traces of LRA movement across the border on 11 September and that two days later, hunters had encountered the guerrilla fighters near the town of Tumbara.
Since then, the "large group" that included women and children had moved into the Raga district in southern Darfur where they had clashed with locals after trying to loot supplies.
The director of communications for the UN mission in Darfur, Kemal Saiki, said that they were taking the possible presence of the LRA "seriously" and were attempting to verify the reports. "We've spent three days pawing over reports. We have no hard evidence yet. Conversely we have nothing that refutes their presence either."
After being forced out of Uganda, the LRA had initially moved into the north of Congo. The rebel fighters relocated last year to camps in Garamba National Park in what was hoped would be the final staging post before a peace deal. But internationally brokered talks collapsed after the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for Kony's arrest.
In the northern Congolese forests, the trail of destruction left by Kony's men is astounding. More than 1,200 people have been killed in the past year and another 2,000 kidnapped – at least one third of these were children. About 400,000 people have been uprooted.
The aid agency Médecins sans Frontières said: "The local population is the target of violence: murder, kidnapping and sexual abuse."
Now the people of Darfur, who have already suffered some of the worst human rights abuses seen in Africa, face a new and sinister threat at a time when stability finally appeared to be within their grasp.
Lord's Resistance Army: A byword for sadism
*The Lord's Resistance Army began in the 1980s as an uprising against the new government of Yoweri Museveni by the Acholi people in northern Uganda.
What started as a struggle for minority rights has since become a byword for sadism in one of the most senseless conflicts on the continent.
*Led by the mysterious Joseph Kony, believed by his followers to be a prophet, the LRA claims to be fighting to enforce a bizarre moral code – based, it says, on the Biblical Ten Commandments – in a separate Acholi homeland.
*Years of abductions where children have been forced to kill their own parents in a brutal initiation have made the rebels feared and hated.
*Thousands of people were killed and 2 million displaced during the 22 years of war between Kony's rebels and the Ugandan government.
*A truce was signed in August 2006 and was later renewed. But talks collapsed in April 2008 after Kony failed to sign the pact as planned.
*The LRA no longer has the capacity to launch operations into Uganda itself and has instead drifted as a freelance force, looting and living off the land across the region.
*Kony is wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for his role in a conflict that has destabilised a swathe of central Africa.