Clashes continued near a strategically important provincial capital of the Darfur region on Wednesday, as rebel commanders said they had been bombed in one village even as they ceded control of another.
Suleiman Jamous, a senior commander with the rebel Sudan Liberation Army, said in a satellite telephone interview Wednesday evening that a government warplane had bombed a rebel camp in the village of Tadit, roughly 40km southwest of the North Darfur capital of El Fasher. Reuters quoted another rebel field commander as saying 25 fighters were killed in that raid.
Jamous also said the rebel army had vacated another town near El Fasher, called Tawilah, but denied capturing it in the first place, as the government and UN officials had said earlier this week. When government troops attacked a nearby village this week, he said, rebel forces chased them out of the village and into Tawilah. "The SLA did not attack Tawilah at all," he said. "We did not capture the town."
The spokeswoman for the UN mission, Radhia Achouri, told reporters here in the capital on Wednesday that Tawilah was back under government control, but that the atmosphere remained tense. The UN's top envoy for Sudan, Jan Pronk, has criticized the rebel army for attacking Tawilah early Monday morning. He called it a clear violation of repeated cease-fire deals, the most recent of which was signed on Nov. 9 in Abuja, the Nigerian capital.
Aid workers rescued by helicopter from Tawilah on Monday reported retaliatory government airstrikes. But so far, neither the African Union, which is entrusted with monitoring cease-fire violations, nor UN officials have been willing to confirm the bombings.
The political implications are clear. Government airstrikes, if confirmed, would constitute a violation of a security protocol agreed to by Khartoum barely two weeks ago in the peace talks in Abuja. Such a violation could potentially compel members of the UN Security Council -- particularly the US, which has been fiercely critical of Khartoum's actions in Darfur -- to push for punitive measures, like economic sanctions.
Not surprisingly, each side blamed the other for the cease-fire violations, claimed to be acting in self-defense, and promised to abide by the truces made.
Magzoub al-Khalifa Ahmed, the agricultural minister and the government's chief representative in Darfur negotiations, said he could not say whether the military had bombed Tawilah, but argued that it was well within the government's rights to use air power when attacked.
Achouri, the UN spokeswoman, disagreed, telling reporters on Wednesday that aerial bombings, if confirmed, would be "a breach of the agreement."
Khalifa Ahmed said the government remained willing to resume negotiations with the rebels in Abuja on Dec. 10, as scheduled. "We are highly committed to the cease-fire agreement," he said in an interview. But he added that the government "has the right to use its air force in self-defense."
Likewise, Jamous emphasized the rebel army's willingness to hew to a peace accord but vowed to keep fighting all the same. "We are always ready to fight, but we are not violating the cease-fire," he said. "If the government is bombing and sending troops to our places, we will not surrender to the government."
UN officials, however, have accused the rebels of breaking the "spirit and letter" of the Nov. 9 accord with their raid on Tawilah.