Thousands forced to flee Darfur town

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The Independent Online

A Darfur town has been burnt to the ground since it came under the control of Sudanese troops this week, the UN said yesterday. Observers who inspected the town of Haskanita say 15,000 civilians have fled since the army moved in.

The North Darfur town of Haskanita, "which is currently under the control of the government, was completely burned down, except for a few buildings," the UN mission to Sudan said in a statement.

The UN said Sudanese government forces took control of the area after suspected Darfur rebels attacked the nearby AU base a week ago, killing 10 peacekeepers.

The UN insisted it wasn't making accusations on who burned down Haskanita. "The UN has no mandate to investigate security incidents," the UN spokeswoman in Sudan, Radhia Achouri, said in an e-mail to the AP, adding that it would be up to the AU to find out what happened.

For its part, the AU confirmed it was investigating the attack on the base, but could not say whether it would enlarge its inquiry to the nearby destroyed town.

AU investigations are carried out through a body known as the Cease-Fire Commission, which includes representatives of the Sudanese army and some rebels. They have to approve findings before they are made public.

A UN official who just came back from Haskanita, however, said there was a full army battalion, or 800 men, now stationed at the entrance of the town, which he described as "still smoldering."

"There's absolutely no doubt the army and janjaweed did it," the official said, requesting anonymity because the Sudanese government regularly expels observers who speak out. He said the town was now empty.

The Arab-dominated government and its allied janjaweed militias of nomad Arabs are accused of regularly burning ethnic African villages as part of their counterinsurgency campaign against local rebels.

Sudan's government denies backing the janjaweed, who are accused of the worst atrocities in four years of conflict that has killed 200,000 people and chased 2.5 million from their homes, largely ethnic Africans.

An AP reporter saw Haskanita intact last Sunday when the army was moving in. But plumes of smoke could already be seen rising from several nearby villages while flying over the area.