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Clashes in Darfur as Elections Raise Tensions

Alan Boswell | Nairobi 14 January 2010

Armed clashes have re-emerged in western Sudan's Darfur region, with a rebel group attacking government forces.

The Darfur rebel Sudan Liberation Movement group that is still allied to exiled founder Abdel Wahid Al-Nur says it attacked the government positions at Golo town in the mountainous Jebel Marra region in north Darfur. A rebel commander said the attack was in retaliation for government bombings against rebel areas.

The rebel group claims to have captured dozens of Sudanese soldiers and several military vehicles.

The joint AU-U.N. peacekeeping mission in Darfur, known as UNAMID, does not have a presence in the town.

International Crisis Group Sudanese analyst Fouad Hikmat says upcoming elections are driving heightened tensions in the region. He says rebel groups are rejecting national elections scheduled in April, unless a political settlement bringing stability to the region can be arrived at first.

More peace talks are set for later this month in Doha, Qatar, although it is not clear which of the rebel groups' many factions will attend.

Hikmat said if no agreement is reached the rebels might try to de-legitimize the elections through boycott and instability.

"If somebody puts themselves in the shoes of the rebels, one is probably going to say, 'Look, if you rig it, then we will derail it,'" Hikmat said.

Last year, the outgoing UNAMID commander described the Darfur conflict as "very low intensity," a remark denounced by rebel groups and U.S.-based Darfur advocacy groups. Many regional observers say a fractured and weakened rebel movement, along with a major drop in casualties in the region, means Darfur is no longer the emergency hot-spot it once was.

But some fear the commander's remarks could prompt rebels to plan new offensives to counter the claim the war is effectively over.

The government meanwhile seems to have stepped up its campaign against the splintered rebels. The Abdel Wahid SLM faction reported several government and militia attacks near the end of last year, and the rebel group Justice and Equality Movement says that regular aerial bombings of rebel-controlled areas of North Darfur started up again the beginning of this month.

Hikmat says that the situation right now in Darfur is heating up as all sides jockey for position before the April vote.

"I do not see that at this moment there will be any breakthrough whether in Doha or impediments here vis-a-vis the elections," Hikmat said. "So the situation is extremely fragile and everyday it is getting more fragile and more sensitive."

A delegation representing the Abdel Wahid SLM faction arrived in Juba this week to hold discussions with the former rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement, now junior governing partners with the Khartoum regime.

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