Sudanese rebels shell southern city during visit by defense minister

Rebels shelled Kadugli, a major oil-producing city in south Sudan as the defense minister was addressing worshipers during a prayer service. It was the fourth shelling of Kadugli this month.

Supporters of Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) take part in a rally in support of South Sudan taking control of the Heglig oil field, in Juba April 13. Since June 2011, Sudan's army has been fighting rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North in South Kordofan, which borders South Sudan.

Sudanese rebels shelled the main city of the oil-producing South Kordofan state during a visit of Sudan's defence minister, Abdel Raheem Muhammad Hussein, rebels and residents said.

Sudan's army has been fighting rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-North) in South Kordofan, which borders South Sudan, since June last year. But the state capital Kadugli was until this month mainly kept out of the fighting.

SPLM-North spokesman Arnu Lodi said the rebels had fired shells on army positions inside Kadugli on Friday after coming under fire from government warplanes.

"There was an aerial bombardment against SPLM-North positions and villages so we fired back against military positions in Kadugli," he said.

Residents said the shelling started when the defence minister, a close ally of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, was addressing worshippers during prayers marking Eid al-Adha, the Muslim Feast of Sacrifice.

"Some seven rockets hit the town, one of them close to the place where the minister spoke," a resident said, asking not to be named. "Worshippers were really afraid."

Sudan accuses South Sudan, which seceded from the north in July 2011, of backing the SPLM-North, whose fighters were part of the southern rebel army during Sudan's long civil war. South Sudan denies the accusation.

Events in Sudan's border states are hard to verify as the government bans foreign media from travelling there.

Sudan's army spokesman al-Sawarmi Khalid could not be reached on his mobile phone, but the newspaper al-Intibaha, run by an uncle of Bashir, confirmed on Saturday that rebels shelled Kadugli when the defence minister was in town to celebrate Eid.

This was the fourth reported shelling of the state capital this month. The rebels first shelled Kadugli on Oct. 8. At least one rocket hit a U.N. compound, prompting the United Nations to move its staff out of the town.

Lodi, the rebels' spokesman, also accused the army of bombing the rebel-held area of Kauda in South Kordofan on Saturday.

Fighting in South Kordofan and nearby Blue Nile state has displaced or severely affected 900,000 people, the United Nations said a week ago. Sudan agreed in August to let aid into rebel-held areas but the United Nationshas been unable to win government approval to go ahead with distributing food.

Under international pressure, Sudan and South Sudan agreed last month to establish a buffer zone along their border after clashing along it several times in the past year. Indirect talks between Khartoum and the rebels, however, have made scant progress.

Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz and Ulf Laessing, editing by Rosalind Russell

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