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Darfur rebel raid stirs Sudan-Chad war

The JEM rebel group – which Sudan accuses of being backed by Chad – reached the outskirts of Sudan's capital, Khartoum, for the first time this weekend, raising concerns about a proxy war.

By Rob CrillyCorrespondent / May 12, 2008

Taking the fight to Khartoum: Khalil Ibrahim (l.) leader of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) listened during a meeting with UN officials in Darfur last month.

Stuart Price/Albany Associates/Reuters

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Nairobi, Kenya

Sudan on Sunday cut diplomatic ties with its neighbor Chad, which it accuses of backing a Darfur rebel assault on Sudan's capital, Khartoum, over the weekend.

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Although the Darfur rebels have little chance of toppling Sudan's regime, the advance is "the first time anyone has managed to take civil war to the doorstep of the [Sudanese] government, so it's a propaganda victory of sorts," says Richard Cornwell of the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa.

The move by the Justice and Equality (JEM) rebel group may expose the fragility of the Sudanese government by putting pressure on existing divisions, say analysts. But it also gives Khartoum a reason to ramp up its latest offensives in Darfur and raises the prospect of a border war between Chad and Sudan; both believe the other is using rebels as proxy fighters.

"The government has already begun to manipulate this," says Salih Mahmoud Osman, a Darfuri member of parliament, explaining that Khartoum now has the political cover it needs to step up its offensives in Darfur and to stall elections. "They are already blaming Chad, a number of people have been arrested, and they can say the country is under external threat."

A surprise assault on Khartoum

This weekend's rebel assault came out of the blue.

Several hundred JEM rebels launched their attack on Saturday morning having traveled more than 600 miles from their Darfur strongholds.

Sudanese armed forces responded with artillery and helicopter gunships as fighting raged through the day.

Sunday morning, President Omar al-Bashir appeared on state television, dressed in military uniform, to say the attack had been repelled and that he would sever ties with Chad.

"These forces are all basically Chadian forces supported and prepared by Chad and they moved from Chad under the leadership of Khalil Ibrahim," he said in a televised address, adding that he reserved the right to retaliate against the "outlaw regime."

Mr. Ibrahim, who leads JEM, is from the same Zaghawa tribe as Idriss Deby, president of Chad.

Although he denies being backed by Chad, the ties are an open secret.

In February, JEM fighters traveled from Darfur to Chad to protect Mr. Deby from rebels pouring into his capital, N'Djamena.

At the same time, links between Khartoum and Chadian rebels are barely disguised.