For the first time, last week Arab janjaweed militia, riding camels and horses, and backed by government vehicles, swooped in and killed 34 villagers in a camp for internal "refugees" in the Darfur region of western Sudan.
The unprecedented attack on one of the hundreds of camps set up after Darfurians fled their villages in 2003 is prompting the UN and other aid groups to downsize their food-and-support operations. "Tens of thousands of people will not get any assistance today, because it is too dangerous," said the UN's top relief official, Jan Egeland.
Yet, experts say there are crucial differences in this fresh wave of Darfur violence - differences that, ironically, could hint at new, even hopeful, dynamics in the region.
Such attacks, observers say, are increasingly being used by the government and its allies - as well as Darfur's rebel groups - to send messages to negotiators hundreds of miles away in Abuja, Nigeria, where peace talks chaired by the African Union (AU) are in their early stages. One attack might showcase a certain side's prowess - thus forcing the other side to concede a point. Another might be orchestrated by a disaffected rebel commander upset at not being included in talks.
Using violence to send signals to negotiators is fairly common. "It's thump and talk, thump and talk - that's the way you flex your muscles" at peace talks, says Richard Cornwell of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa. It is in this context that experts say the violence could be seen as positive.
In Senate testimony last week, Deputy US Secretary of State Robert Zoellick also said the surge of violence may be related to "positioning for negotiations." And he confirmed the shifting dynamics: "Large-scale organized violence has substantially subsided" in Darfur, he said, as the Sudanese military has "pulled back." But he noted janjaweed militias and rebel groups continue to operate.
The violence originally began in Darfur in 2003, when local rebels, complaining of marginalization by the central government, attacked Army positions. The government retaliated by backing janjaweed militias that attacked villages and killed civilians. This led to charges of genocide by the US and others. Some 180,000 people have died - and 2 million have been displaced.
The AU, which has roughly 5,000 troops in Darfur, was unusually tough in its condemnation of last week's attack. AU envoy Baba Gana Kingibe gave specific instances of government troops conducting "coordinated offensive operations" with the janjaweed militia.
Khartoum did not respond to Mr. Kingibe's comments, which contradict its repeated denial that it has aided the janjaweed militia. But Kingibe also stressed that government forces were apparently retaliating for rebel operations in August and September, which came just before the peace talks. Separate from the peace talks, the AU's peace and security council is meeting in Ethiopia Monday to consider appropriate action, Kingibe said.