Three years after rebels from the farming tribes of Darfur rose up against the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum, Sudan, the region is staring into the abyss once again.
Government planes have embarked on a wave of indiscriminate bombings in Darfur, killing civilians in Sudan's war-torn western region, according to human rights campaigners.
Witness statements collected by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International detail deaths and injuries to women and children as Russian-made Antonov planes deliver their deadly payload. "Government forces are bombing villages with blatant disregard for civilian lives," says Peter Takirambudde, HRW's Africa director.
The fresh government onslaught against rebel-held villages is being played out against a backdrop of diplomatic uncertainty, as Khartoum rejects outside peacekeeping efforts amid its push to establish full sovereignty over the area.
This week, Khartoum threatened to evict a cash-strapped, weak African Union (AU) monitoring force when its mandate expires Sept. 30.
Government figures also continued to voice strident opposition to the deployment of a proposed force of more than 20,000 UN peacekeepers – seen by many analysts as the only way to rein in combatants in a war that has killed more than 200,000 people and forced some 2.5 million to flee to squalid aid camps.
Aid agencies warn that a "peacekeeping vacuum" could make their operations impossible to maintain. Meanwhile, proposed international sanctions as well as investigations of evidence by the International Criminal Court have been brushed off by Khartoum.
John Prendergast, a senior adviser at the International Crisis Group who has just returned to the US from Darfur, said the reported attacks were merely the "first moves on the chessboard," as the government massed troops in Darfur.
"They are embarked on their usual strategy of cutting the umbilical cord of the rebellion by destroying the civilian population, a strategy which is unchanged since 2003 and 2004," he says.
Residents of El Fasher, the regional capital of North Darfur, report the daily arrival of planes delivering troops and arms. HRW reports that one woman was killed and seven children injured near Kulkul, when a bomb was rolled from the back of an Antonov cargo plane. Amnesty International has accounts of government planes bombing Kulkul to prepare for ground troops and their Janjaweed allies.
For now, 7,000 AU soldiers are charged with protecting civilians and aid workers. They have struggled to stamp their authority on an area the size of France.
A peace deal signed in May has brought little respite. Only one faction of the Sudanese Liberation Army and the government signed on to its terms, leaving two large rebel factions outside the deal. They have since fragmented further.
Noureddine Mezni, spokesman for the AU mission, said his monitoring force did not have the resources to police the accord. "It's not easy to create buffer zones between rebel-held and government territory, to deploy around camps, or to use aircraft to patrol the area," he says.
Last week, the UN Security Council voted to take over and expand the peacekeeping effort. But the plan has been rejected repeatedly by the Sudanese government.
Sudan's president, Omar Al-Bashir, has vowed to fight off UN troops himself, and warned that Sudan would take on international soldiers "as Hizbullah beat Israeli forces." His ministers have also stepped up pressure on the AU, warning that AU troops can stay beyond September only if they drop plans to hand over their operation to the UN.
Mr. Prendergast said the diplomatic maneuvering was designed to distract from Darfur operations.
"Their strategy is pacification, and that means zero tolerance of rebels and zero tolerance pretty much of international witnesses," he says. "That's why we have seen arrests of journalists and growing insecurity for aid workers."
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson traveled to Sudan yesterday to seek the release of Paul Salopek, an American writer for National Geographic and The Chicago Tribune. He is to appear in court Sunday, charged with espionage, entering without a visa, and writing "false news."
A Canadian Broadcasting Corp. camera crew was assaulted at their hotel entrance in Khartoum on Wednesday by plainclothes police, as protests unfolded in the city. Reporters and aid workers arriving at the airport say their laptops have been seized and scanned for incriminating material.
The AU says that it does not have the resources to stay in Darfur beyond Sept. 30. But African foreign ministers are to meet in New York this month, concurrently with the UN Security Council, raising hopes that they may seek to renew the mandate.
On Wednesday, Sean McCormack, State Department spokesman, said US officials were in close contact with their African counterparts. "They are going to have to make some crucial decisions about their force in Darfur," he said. "We are confident that there will not be a vacuum, one way or the other, in Darfur...."
Many aid workers have already reduced operations following an upsurge in attacks. Eight were killed during July alone, and an International Rescue Committee nurse died amid fighting last Friday in Hashaba, about 70 miles north of El Fasher.
Mark Blackett, country director of the Irish charity Goal, said everyone was pinning hopes on a deal to sustain AU protection. "If we are proved wrong, that is a serious problem. I can see many agencies, including ourselves, having to pull out if the AU itself withdraws," he said by phone from Khartoum.