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A swath of North Darfur, still fragile from the December clashes between the government and rebels, has been engulfed in renewed fighting, leaving villages abandoned as civilians fled. The Tabit area south of the state capital of El Fashir hosts many camps for displaced, some of them newly formed as a result of the December fighting, and alarming reports from Enough sources and the U.N. peacekeeping mission indicate that the government is targeting these vulnerable communities.
Perhaps owing to the recent criticism, most notably from U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice, of UNAMID’s tendency to gloss over the Sudanese government’s involvement in Darfur violence, the African Union-U.N. peacekeeping mission was uncharacteristically frank about what transpired and who was involved. On January 27 UNAMID reported that a verification mission to Tabit was unable to access the area due to renewed aerial bombardments. (Responsibility of the Sudan Armed Forces is implied because the army is the only force with air support.) The UNAMID team site closest to Tabit, in Shangil Tobaya, reported:
[A]t 1800hrs, approximately 200 Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) soldiers, on 40 vehicles, surrounded the team site’s exit as well as the adjacent makeshift camp, where thousands of civilians recently displaced by the December 2010 clashes have settled.
Four displaced persons were detained by SAF military. The SAF commander at the scene stated that they were carrying out their duties and intended to persuade the IDPs to return to their original camps. He then threatened to burn down the makeshift camp and UNAMID team site, if the peacekeepers continued to interfere. The UNAMID Blue Helmets stood their ground and the SAF troops eventually departed.
Feeling vulnerable in the camps, displaced people have gathered outside of several UNAMID team sites in the area to seek protection. IDP camps in the area are reporting a surge in new arrivals as well.
Tabit, Shangil Tobaya, and the surrounding area have been volatile for several weeks as the Sudanese government has pursued the rebel Sudan Liberation Army-Minni Minnawi after a peace agreement between the government and Minnawi’s group broke down. Now it appears that the SLA-MM has teamed up with the rebel faction led by Abdel Wahid, which has also been under attack in its stronghold of Jebel Marra since early last year. Given this new cooperation on the part of the rebels, paired with the government’s superior arsenal and thinly disguised desire to take the rebels out militarily, it looks unlikely that fighting will abate any time soon – much to the detriment of civilians.
Human Rights Watch reported last week:
At Tabit, and in other clashes in Darfur since early December 2010, both government and rebel forces carried out targeted attacks on civilian populations based on their ethnic affiliations (…). The fighting has caused civilian deaths and injuries, destruction and looting of civilian property, and mass displacement of tens of thousands of people to displaced persons camps and safe havens.
As Enough noted in a post about the December clashes, (published, not coincidentally, during the referendum period), belligerents in Darfur appeared to be taking advantage of the spotlight on the South, ramping up attacks on each other and on civilians perceived to be affiliated with their enemy. So while the Sudanese government deserves credit for enabling the southern referendum to proceed smoothly, the peaceful vote doesn’t justify cashing in on incentives, though Sudan’s foreign minister Ali Karti suggested it should.
Time and again during recent months, public statements by the Sudanese government and rebel groups about a willingness to find a non-military solution to the Darfur conflict stand in stark contrast to their actions on the ground in Darfur.
This week, two rebel groups announced they were ready to jointly negotiate with the Sudanese government. The move can be interpreted as an acknowledgement that patience with the Doha peace talks is growing thin and rebels are concerned about the prospect of the talks being moved from Doha to Darfur. So far, “domestication” of the peace process is the only alternative being discussed. However, the recent violence should provide a strong counterargument to the Sudanese government’s view that the Darfur peace process should be hosted in Sudan, an option that gives Khartoum an obvious upper hand.
At the same time, the positive impact of recent high-level U.S. engagement in Sudan ahead of the southern referendum is a potent example of how attention from the Obama administration could raise the stakes and visibility of the Darfur peace process. A change of course could not come soon enough.
Photo: UNAMID (AP)