Darfur's rebel forces turn on each other

Posted in Africa | 17-May-06 | Author: Xan Rice| Source: Guardian (UK)

Members of the Sudanese Liberation Army in Susuwa, north Darfur.

· Tribal turf war erupts as peace process stalls
· Victims of Arab militia now face new attackers

With Darfur's remaining rebels still refusing to sign a peace deal, fighters that were united against the Sudanese government have turned on each other.

Around Tawilla thousands of civilians have been displaced since the beginning of the year following deadly violence between two ethnically-divided factions of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), Darfur's largest rebel movement.

In what has become a turf war for control of rebel-held territory, gunmen on pick-up trucks and horseback have been burning huts, killing, looting, and even raping women, in raids just

Villages that had been emptied due to raids by government forces are once again deserted. Camps for displaced people on the outskirts of town lie abandoned, their terrified former residents having barricaded themselves in makeshift shelters against the razor wire surrounding the African Union peacekeepers' base. All but one international NGO have left.

"Initially the trouble here was the government forces," said an AU military observer based in Tawilla, two hours' drive west of the state capital, El Fasher. "But now these different SLA groups fighting each other have become the problem."

Fighting between the rebels reached its peak before the peace agreement was signed on May 5 by Sudan's government and the larger faction of the SLA, which was desperate to make territorial gains before the ceasefire.

Hopes of an end to the rebels' mutual enmity, which has added another layer to an already muddled conflict, were dashed again on Monday when the SLA faction led by Abdel Wahid ignored an extended deadline to accept the Darfur peace agreement. A third, smaller, group, the Justice and Equality Movement, is also holding out. Mr Wahid is demanding more detailed provisions on compensation for the war's victims and disarmament of the Janjaweed militia. There are serious doubts as to whether the peace accord can hold. Negotiators have again extended the deadline for the rebel groups to join the agreement to May 31.

Yesterday the UN security council passed a resolution to speed up planning for a UN peacekeeping force in Darfur and threatened sanctions against anyone who opposed the May 5 accord. On Monday the African Union agreed to transfer authority for its 7,300 strong peacekeeping force to the UN by the end of September.

The latest twist in the Darfur crisis follows a major falling out late last year in the leadership of the SLA, a broad-based guerrilla movement formed to protest against the region's marginalisation by the Arab-dominated regime in Khartoum.

Minni Arcua Minnawi, the group's secretary-general, took with him the larger share of the fighters and weapons. Most of his men are Zaghawa, a cattle-herding tribe. Mr Wahid, the SLA chairman, and a member of the sedentary Fur, Darfur's largest tribe, was left with a smaller force but a large support base.

"We thought we would meet up in Khartoum, as we still had the same objectives," said Commander "Tiger" Muhammad, from the Wahid faction, who arrived in the deserted village of Tina yesterday with several dozen of his fighters.

Some of his men, a motley gang wearing turbans and leather amulets, took part in the 2003 attack on government forces in El Fasher that helped spark the Darfur conflict. Retribution came quickly to Tawilla, where the vast expanse of desert gives way to rocky foothills to the west, as government forces attacked African tribes.

The SLA "liberated" the area more than a year ago, bringing a degree of stability. Civilians began returning to their fields to plant crops. Some even returned to their villages near the town. But since February this year Tawilla has become one of the most insecure regions of Darfur as rebels under Mr Minnawi sought to capture territory from their rival faction. Civilians were caught in the crossfire. The initial attack, at Korma, left 12 of Mr Wahid's fighters dead, along with numerous bystanders. Attacks on villages continued throughout the next two months. On April 19 the Minni rebels attacked the village of Tina, forcing all the inhabitants to Tawilla and looting their property.

"When you see the suffering around Tawilla, it is because of Minni," said Mr Muhammad, a thin man wearing military fatigues. "He has a secret agenda of wanting to create a big 'Zaghawaland' but we are fighting for all the people of Darfur."