A recent spate of attacks in South Darfur State seems to constitute a new military offensive by the Sudanese government and puts the lives of tens of thousands of people at risk, regional analysts have warned.
"A lot of attacks have been taking place in a very short time," a source in the region - who requested anonymity - said. "What seems to be happening is a coordinated offensive of the Sudanese armed forces, the Janjawid militia and PDF [Popular Defence Force, local militia] to retake Gereida [a town 110 km southeast of South Darfur's capital, Nyala]."
On Monday, the government used an Antonov plane and two helicopter gunships during a major attack on the rebel-controlled village of Joghana, southeast of Gereida, the international watchdog, Human Rights Watch (HRW), reported on Thursday.
People who fled the town said the Antonov dropped bombs that killed civilians, but the numbers of the dead and injured could not be verified. According to a United Nations source, the estimated 10,000 village residents and 20,000 internally displaced persons who had found refuge in Joghana seemed to have fled the violence, but their whereabouts remained unclear for the moment.
The previous day, PDF forces had attacked Dito, a rebel-controlled town north of Gereida. A regional analyst had also received reports of skirmishes around the rebel-held villages of Ladab and Rijella to the northeast of Gereida. On Tuesday, local rebel commanders requested aid workers to leave the villages to avoid being caught in the crossfire.
"If the Sudanese government continues this offensive then Gereida is likely to be the next target," said Peter Takirambudde, HRW's Africa director. "Civilians there, particularly those who share the ethnicity of the rebel groups, could be in grave danger."
The Gereida area has long been a flashpoint, setting the government-allied Janjawid militia and the Sudanese military against the rebel Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). All parties have contributed to ethnic polarisation and massive civilian displacement in the area.
The Sudanese government reportedly armed the Fallata ethnic community and other Arab militia to fight the Massalit community, who are accused of supporting the SLA. The rebel movement, too, has violated the ceasefire, having moved troops into Gereida in March 2005, despite a November 2004 agreement to demilitarise the town.
Col Mubarrak Hamed Ali, the SLA commander in Gereida, said as long as the Sudanese government was making no effort to disarm the Janjawid and continued to arm militia and instigate attacks, the SLA could not be asked to stop protecting their people.
"We are here to protect the citizens, on the invitation of the people of Gereida," he said. "Without the SLA, Gereida would already have been turned into ashes."
Gereida's strategic location, on the main road from Nyala south to Buram, has made it and surrounding villages a focal point for armed clashes over the past six months. Since November 2005, government-backed militias have attacked dozens of villages around Gereida in which thousands of people have been displaced and lost their remaining livestock and other property. Rebel forces have reportedly attacked other villages in the area in reprisal raids.
Since December 2005, the African Union (AU) peacekeepers in Gereida have reported a massive influx of pro-government militia around the town, and by early March 2006, at least 60 villages around Gereida had suffered attacks.
Lt-Col Barukinamwo Canisius, AU commander in Gereida, said that the area had experienced sustained Janjawid attacks since December, resulting in the killing of 300 members of the Massalit.
In November 2005, the International Committee of the Red Cross, which coordinates relief efforts in the area, announced that fighting between 6 and 15 November had displaced 15,000 people, bringing the total number of displaced persons in Gereida to 65,000.
By early February, the figure had risen to 80,000. In March, the AU announced that Gereida was home to nearly 90,000 internally displaced people, one of the largest concentrations in Darfur.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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