Darfur rebels poised to take Khartoum

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The Independent Online

The vicious conflict in Darfur suddenly came to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, yesterday, with fighting reported in the western suburbs of the city.

A Darfur rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), claimed it had already taken the town of Omdurman, on the western bank of the Nile opposite Khartoum, and appeared to be moving to seize the capital. The daring attack – the first by Darfur rebels so close to Khartoum – shook the government of President Omar al-Bashir, which has been held responsible for a scorched-earth policy and the loss of over 200,000 lives in the west of the country.

In recent days there has been heavy fighting in Kordofan province, which stretches from Darfur to the Nile, and on Thursday, when clashes came closer to the capital, some roads and rover bridges were closed. Last night Sudanese television claimed the rebels had been “completely repulsed”, and government sources denied the rebels were inside the capital. But the authorities imposed a curfew on Khartoum, and witnesses reported seeing army vehicles and helicopters heading to the west of the city, where heavy gunfire and artillery was heard throughout the night.

JEM’s website was last night quoting one of its field commanders, who claimed his men were in “full control” of Omdurman and were heading to Khartoum. The website also claimed that the group had taken control of the airport at the Wadi Sayedna military base, 10 miles north of Khartoum, and three bridges leading into the capital. There was no independent verification of the claims.

Khartoum’s main airport was closed and taken over by the Sudanese military. Witnesses told Reuters news agency that three Egyptian fighter planes and one Egyptian army cargo plane arrived at the airport yesterday evening. Egypt has been a staunch ally of President Omar al-Bashir throughout the Darfur conflict.

Meanwhile, fresh fighting was reported on the Chad/Sudan border. JEM, like many of Darfur’s rebel groups, is believed to receive support and funding from the Chadian government. Sudan claimed the Chadian military attack was “direct support” for JEM’s “sabotage attempt”.

JEM first came to prominence outside Sudan in February 2003 when, alongside another rebel group, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), it began a rebellion against the Sudanese government. Sudanese forces, backed up by militia groups known as the Janjaweed, launched a devastating counter-insurgency.

In the five years since, around 2.5 million people have been forced from their homes and an estimated 200,000 have died, mainly from war-related diseases. The United Nations has established the world’s largest humanitarian aid programme, but attempts to end the conflict through peace conferences and the deployment of peacekeepers has failed. The two original rebel groups have since splintered into anywhere between a dozen and two dozen factions, but in recent months JEM has become the strongest military force among them.

While Sudan has been ravaged by a succession of civil wars for more than two decade,s Khartoum itself has rarely been threatened. In recent years parts of the city have enjoyed the fruits of the country’s oil boom, with new buildings going up every month. The West, particularly the United States, has shunned Sudan, but Gulf states, Malaysia and China have poured money in.

President Bashir came to power in 1989 when, as a junior officer, he led a coup which ousted the elected government of Sadiq al-Mahdi.