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Sudan bombs Darfur rebels – and civilians – amid calls for a 'no-fly' zone.

A Dutch journalist and photographer traveled with rebel forces in Darfur in February. They were pinned down by government forces for weeks, before escaping across the border into Chad.

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The roar of a Antonov cargo plane, making bombing runs less than a mile a way, could be heard while this reporter visited. "I hope that our movement quickly gets special missiles to take these planes down, because they drop bombs on unarmed civilians," says Djoama angrily.

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At night, the Antonov pilot and the approaching government ground troops can be heard talking in Arabic. The conversation is picked up on an FM radio. Djoama and his comrades make a sudden dash to their jeeps. A convoy of a few hundred government vehicles and tanks is on its way. Headlights off so the aircraft cannot spot them, they move to a new campsite about a half-dozen miles away.

But before long, the Antonovs find the sleeping rebels. A bomb lands in a deafening explosion just 50 meters away from Djoama. Djoama looks up for a moment, then rolls over and goes back to sleep.

Early in the morning of Feb. 4, the rebel group moves out, and arrives near the village of Karoya Laban. On the same day, back in Muhajirya, government troops succeed in retaking the town – after the JEM rebels pull out.

Many refugees from the region around Muhajirya are now camped under the trees just outside the village of Karoya Laban, where there is a well. In the village of thatched houses, residents say that there was an Antonov air strike at the end of January just outside the village. "The victims were two elderly men who had just taken their herd of sheep there to drink," says Abdullkerim Abdullah.

Mr. Abdullah, who lives with his wife and seven children in Karoya Laban, says the bombings have occurred with regularity. "But there were two occasions when the area was attacked day and night for weeks without end: in July 2008 and in recent weeks. The Antonovs did not hit this village. They can't aim very well."

The UN Security Council prohibits offensive air operations over Darfur, but according to the UN, Sudan has been ignoring the resolution for years. Bombings of villages took place on a large scale in 2003 and 2004. The number of bombings has since been reduced.

Nearly all air strikes are in conjunction with government attacks on rebels. UN reports claim that between 2007 and 2008 about 100 Darfur villages have been bombed. The air raids have resulted in around 400 known civilian casualties.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said a no-fly zone over Darfur was "under consideration" during her Senate confirmation hearings. And on March 5, former US Air Force chief of staff Gen. Merrill McPeak wrote in the Washington Post that "establishing a no-fly zone remains the most promising initiative to halt the atrocities in Darfur."

No fly zone takes a back seat

But the current focus of the US and the UN is to get aid groups, expelled on March 5, back into the country. UN Ambassador Susan Rice made no mention of a no-fly zone in a Friday statement to the UN Security Council, where she expressed concerns about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Darfur.

"The bombing has certainly increased the demands for a no-fly zone," says Darfur expert Alex de Waal, a British writer on African issues. But, he adds, "Most of those who have examined the practicalities of a no-fly zone over Darfur consider it impractical: hugely expensive in comparison to the impact on the Sudan government's military capability. It is also an act of war which the Sudan government is expecting, and will almost certainly elicit a counter-response from the Sudan government, such as closing Darfur to all flights, including humanitarian and peacekeeping planes."

As the aerial attacks continue, and Darfuris flee their homes, the stockpiles of humanitarian aid are dwindling – and so are the options for Darfuris.

Assistant village leader Abdullah would also like to leave. "I'm scared to death that the janjaweed will take away my cattle. But there is no place to hide; we will always have to return to the well, because there isn't another one for miles around here."

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