SUDAN: Rebels dismiss president's claim of victory in Darfur
NAIROBI, 10 February 2004 (IRIN) - The declaration this week by the government that it had defeated rebels in the western Darfur region was an important step towards unlocking humanitarian access and an eventual resolution to the conflict, a Sudanese diplomat said on Tuesday.
President Umar Hasan al-Bashir on Monday formally declared victory over rebel groups operating in Darfur and an end to the main military operations there, "now that government forces are in full control".
"The government has undertaken its full duties and responsibilities through decisive action in the face of these events, and managed to restore security and protect human life and property," Bashir said in a statement to the nation.
Bashir also said he had extended an amnesty to the rebels on the condition that they surrendered their weapons to government authorities within a month.
Over 600,000 people have been displaced in Darfur and up to 135,000 have fled to neighbouring Chad, following escalation of fighting between the government and Darfur-based rebel groups in the past few months, according to humanitarian agencies.
Siraj al-Din Hamid, the Sudanese ambassador to Uganda, told IRIN from the capital, Kampala, that Bashir's amnesty offer, was one of his declaration's important elements towards preparing the ground for talks and an eventual resolution of the conflict.
According to Siraj al-Din, Bashir has also has ordered the release of several political detainees prior to a planned peace conference, which would bring together all the factions in the Darfur conflict. "This was a step that was being awaited to prepare for talks," Siraj al-Din told IRIN. "This conference will be a reasonable forum to discuss all the region's problems," he added.
He also noted that the refugees currently in Chad would be allowed to return voluntarily, and that the government was now offering unimpeded humanitarian access to vulnerable populations in the region. "The army is now in control of major cities and centres in all the [three] states of Darfur. This is going to make access a lot easier," he said. "The government and the people of Sudan will mobilise resources and provide assistance to the people of Darfur. The government is prepared to give immediate access in the region," Siraj al-Din added.
However, the two main Darfur rebel groups, namely the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), have dismissed Bashir's claim of victory, which they described as "propaganda" aimed at diverting growing international concern over the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the region.
Abu Bakr Hamid al-Nur, the JEM's spokesman and general coordinator, told IRIN on Tuesday that rebel forces had temporarily fled the three main towns of Tine, Karnoi and Ambara, due to heavy government air bombardments, but were fully in control of all of the region's rural areas and other towns.
He said the rebel forces were now surrounding the deserted towns, which were currently being patrolled by government forces. "The big problem in Sudan always is that the people who think they are ruling the country always tell lies to the international community," Abu Bakr said. "In actuality, they have been busy killing innocent civilians, looting and burning villages."
He urged the international community to provide the region's vulnerable civilian population with humanitarian aid, and to document the "crimes" committed there by government militias. "We are calling on the international community to come and see for themselves what crimes have been committed here. They have killed many people, camels, goats and cattle," he said.
Meanwhile, humanitarian agencies working in the area on Tuesday continued to express concern over the increasing vulnerability of thousands of Sudanese refugees in Chad.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has been evacuating thousands of refugees from the embattled Chadian border to safer areas in the eastern part of the country, said on Tuesday that its staff were "racing against time" to move the refugees to safety despite sandstorms and strong winds, before the onset of the rainy season in May.
"The first movement took place in very difficult weather," UNHCR said in a statement. "Visibility was zero in the midst of sandstorms and strong winds, upsetting plans to transport a larger number of refugees," it added.
The relief agency CARE International said it was also concerned about the impact of the influx of Sudanese refugees on the local communities, which were already living under vulnerable conditions due to high levels of poverty and malnutrition. "The CARE team particularly stresses the impact that the current influx of refugees may have on the local resources of water, agriculture, and basic necessities," CARE said in a statement.