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.
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Their use of the French language and distinctive, open-topped pickups make them easy to spot.
Proxy war payback
"It seems that, at least in part, this is payback for [Sudan's ruling National Congress Party's] support for rebels in Chad who almost toppled the government there in February," he said.
With the rainy season just beginning in Darfur, it was also one of the last chances for JEM to strengthen its hand before hunkering down for the next few months.
Security sources in Khartoum, speaking on condition of anonymity, estimated that about 200 rebel technicals – pickups mounted with heavy machine guns – made the three-day journey from their strongholds in the Jebel Moon region of West Darfur.
They crossed into North Darfur and then Northern Kordofan using areas controlled by sympathetic tribes.
They picked up reinforcements along the way, before approaching Khartoum from the west via its historic neighbor Omdurman.
The city is well-defended with machine gun emplacements along all major arteries and around strategic position such as airports and government buildings.
Bridges across the Nile were closed as fighting began.
Suleiman Sandal, JEM's deputy chief of staff, told the Agence France-Presse news agency that his forces had struggled to adapt to urban warfare.
"Our troops came from Darfur," said Sandal, who claimed he was still in Omdurman on Sunday. "This is the first time for them to fight in towns and now we are gathering our troops and thinking about what we're doing."
Latest United Nations estimates put the death toll in Darfur at 300,000 since rebels took up arms against what they see as an Arab-dominated government in Khartoum.
Yet after five years the fighting has had little impact on the capital, where an oil-fueled building boom has seen new hotels and office blocks springing up beside the Nile.
A foreign aid worker, who is not authorized to speak to the media, says the latest attack had changed all that.
"People here are very frightened. It always seemed as if the war was hundreds of miles away – which it was," he says.
By creating fear in the capital, the rebels might also hope to point up the fact that the government is divided and that the city contains opposition elements made up of southerners and Darfuris, says Mr. Cornwell. But the result is likely to be "a crackdown by the authorities" on the opposition.