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SUDAN: Darfur attack "targeted women and children"

NAIROBI, 10 October 2007 (IRIN) - The recent attack on Muhajiriya town in South Darfur, in which 45 people died and thousands fled their homes, mainly targeted women, children and the elderly, a rebel faction said.

"The government moved forces into the town two days earlier," Mohammed Bashir, spokesman for the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), said from Khartoum, the capital. "With air cover, they attacked the town, burnt down half of it and killed mainly children, women and the elderly."

The Sudanese army denied involvement in the 8 October attack, saying violence in Muhajiriya was a result of "tribal fighting between the citizens of the area".

Bashir said residents and internally displaced persons (IDPs) who fled their homes were in desperate need of assistance. "They fled into [the bush]," he told IRIN by telephone on 10 October. "Although the town is calm now, they are still scared of going back to their homes."

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), about 45,000 internally displaced people were being assisted in and around Muhajiriya.

National and international aid workers from two NGOs were temporarily relocated after the attack, disrupting humanitarian operations.

"There are 20 wounded civilians who need to be taken to hospital," Bashir said. The SLA faction of Minni Minnawi, who signed a May 2006 peace deal and joined the Khartoum government, controls the area.

Amnesty International said the attack was supported by an Antonov, which had been painted in white UN colours. Since 2005, Sudan has been prohibited from offensive flights over Darfur and has been criticised for painting aircraft white, it said.

But spokesman Brigadier Osman Mohamed Al-Aghbash said the army had nothing to do with the incidents at Muhajiriya, adding that its planes had only conducted reconnaissance missions in Haskanita area under an arrangement with the African Union (AU).

"If these kinds of attacks continue, we will not sit without defending ourselves," the SLA spokesman warned. "It will also destroy trust ahead of the Libya talks."

The talks due to start in Sirte on 27 October are expected to bring together Darfur's armed factions and the Sudanese government to seek a peaceful solution to the conflict in the region. Fears have, however, arisen that recent attacks could force some of the groups to boycott the event.

Amnesty, in a statement, warned that more attacks were imminent in northern Darfur. Sudanese forces, it added, were gathering in large numbers in at least six towns, including Tine, Kornoy, Um Baru, Kutum.

"The northern area of North Darfur is under the control of armed opposition groups and it looks as though the Sudan Armed Forces want to attack this area before peace talks scheduled to take place in Libya before the end of the month," according to Tawanda Hondora, deputy director of Amnesty's Africa Programme.

"We fear that civilians will once more suffer killing and displacement, with no force able to protect them."

The Muhajiriya attack followed an earlier one on Haskanita on 29 September. Ten AU peacekeepers were killed. Aid workers said that attack was carried out by an armed opposition group, but the town was occupied by Sudanese forces afterwards.

A UN assessment mission later found Haskanita had been burnt down. Sudanese authorities said the team had exaggerated its findings, adding that only the market was destroyed by a fire. The AU is investigating.

"The gathering of forces in the north, the burning of Haskanita last week, and yesterday's attack on Muhajiriya show the vital importance of ensuring that UNAMID [proposed UN-AU peacekeeping force] is deployed as soon as possible and has the resources available to protect civilians," said Hondora.

Preparations to deploy the force are ongoing, but the mission still lacks ground transport, light tactical helicopters and transport helicopters, according to the UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Affairs, Jean-Marie Guéhenno.

Aid workers fear the upsurge in violence will further restrict the ability of the few humanitarian workers left in Darfur to reach thousands of vulnerable civilians.



Copyright © IRIN 2007
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
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