In remote north Darfur, an upsurge in clashes between rebels and government forces
JEM rebels, who have seized two key towns, have stepped up the fight to create a 'liberated' zone. Peace talks are scheduled for Wednesday.
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In the past year, the war has settled into a low-intensity phase, in sharp contrast to the early days, when government-backed janjaweed militias launched a scorched-earth campaign to deprive rebels of civilian support.Skip to next paragraph
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These days, death comes in ones and twos, with bombs dropped from Antonov warplanes. Or it comes day after day in the aid camps, as fragile children succumb to diseases of malnutrition and want.
Sudan and Chad step up proxy war
At the same time, Sudan and Chad have stepped up their proxy war. Chadian war planes have been operating deep into Darfur seeking out bases of Khartoum-backed rebels who launched attacks inside Chad earlier this month.
JEM's offensive brings the risk of Sudanese reprisal against its own bases across the border, turning a war by proxy into a real front line.
General Sandal says that JEM was now trying to set up a "liberated zone" allowing aid workers to deliver help from Chad.
"In the past, our strategy has been to have mobile units. To hold areas with civil administration takes a lot of effort," he says. "After the government expelled the 13 NGOs, we thought deeply and realized the IDPs [internally displaced persons] are in a very difficult position."
Jem is currently positioning itself as the only rebel group worth talking to in Darfur. In recent weeks, its ranks have been bolstered by commanders from the region's numerous rebel factions.
However, its leadership is still drawn predominantly from the Kobe clan of the Zaghawa tribe, and its fighters include children often recruited from the Chadian refugee camps.
For the time being, it has secured two important victories, seizing Kornoi and then Um Barru, days later.
Dust clouds and intense heat
A column of fighters – with at least 100 "battle wagons" – has been camped around Kornoi for the past week, dodging Antonov raids.
Each vehicle contains a mobile fighting force, usually equipped with one heavy and one light machine gun, along with a couple of rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
The pickups are smeared with mud to make them invisible from the air.
A dry wind whips sand into dust clouds at this time of year, providing extra cover but making life all the more difficult in temperatures that top 100 degrees F.
The soldiers spend their days sprawled on blankets under trees waiting for their next orders.
Every morning and every evening, the Antonovs have been in the air, making tighter and tighter circles as they try to zero in on rebel positions around the captured town. The sound of bombing shudders across the desert.
Kornoi itself was abandoned at the start of the conflict, at a time when the janjaweed were burning and looting their way through the first years of the war.
Its population, from the Zaghawa tribe, was from the same group as many JEM recruits.
Today they live mostly over the border as refugees in Chad.
A few have begun dribbling back to Kornoi, to water their donkeys or reclaim looted shops.
Bagheat Yacoub Tahib was selling cold sodas stacked up in a porous clay pot filled with water – the closest thing here to a fridge.
He says he wants to bring his family back from Chad once the Antonovs stopped flying overhead.
"We were afraid of coming to the town because the government was here," he says. "Now things are safer."