Cross-border conflict escalates

Chadian troops have successfully crossed into Darfur, western Sudan, to rescue cattle stolen by Sudanese militias known as Janjawid, according to UN sources.

In the last couple of days, Chadian soldiers had crossed into Gogei, Western Darfur, to collect the cattle, following an agreement signed last week between presidents Idriss Deby of Chad and Umar al-Bashir of Sudan, sources told IRIN. The agreement allowed Chadian soldiers to cross into Sudanese territory to chase away "rebels", but was being used to chase away Janjawid militias, IRIN was told.

The Chadians reportedly brought eight pick-up trucks into Gogei, which they managed to fill with cattle taken from a group of Janjawid who were caught by surprise.

For the last six weeks, Janjawid - roaming the region in gangs of hundreds mounted on horses and camels - have been mounting almost daily attacks on Chadian territory to steal livestock from refugees who have fled from Darfur. In one such incident on 7 March, 35 armed men stole 100 cattle from two border sites, killing one refugee in his hut and wounding another.

On both sides of the largely unguarded 1,350-km border between the two countries, the military presence has reportedly increased in recent days. A "show of force" was reported in Bayda, Western Darfur, in recent days, where Sudanese military brought in two tanks, had helicopters flying overhead, and stationed 120 soldiers.

But with daily attacks reported, observers say it remains unclear what the build-up is actually achieving.

The government has deployed an additional 100 personnel and 160 military and Popular Defence Forces (PDF) - paramilitary units - in Al-Fashir, the capital of Northern Darfur State, but as recently as 9 March a village in the Tawilah area of Northern Darfur was looted and razed to the ground.

Details have also emerged of a militia attack on Tawilah on 27 February in which 41 schoolgirls and teachers were raped, a number of them by up to 14 men and in front of their families, the UN Children's Fund reported. At least 67 people were also killed and 16 schoolgirls abducted.

A Western diplomatic source told IRIN on Tuesday that not all the militias were actively controlled by the Sudanese government, but at the very least it had done nothing to stop them attacking Darfur's civilians.

He said Khartoum was believed to have realised that it had "unleashed a monster" in supporting the militias - a hodge-podge of opportunists and criminals. Meanwhile, the militias themselves seemed to think it was a "bonanza time" for getting rich, he added, while nobody was doing anything to stop them.

Khartoum has admitted arming Arab militias in the region to fight Darfur's two main rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement.

Meanwhile military attacks against civilians continue in Darfur, where on Sunday Sudanese aircraft had bombed the villages of Wad Hajar and Goweighin in Southern Darfur, killing at least eight people and injuring at least 20 in the former, a local source told IRIN. The army and PDF have repeatedly been accused of aiding and participating in attacks against civilians largely belonging to the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawah communities, and which observers are increasingly referring to as ethnic cleansing.

On Saturday, the SLA rebels attacked a police and security headquarters in Buram town, Southern Darfur, reportedly killing three members of the security forces, and stealing money and cars.