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Sudan's Ragtag Rebels

Ambitions of Darfur Fighters Exceed Resources

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 7, 2004; Page A01

FURAWIYA, Sudan -- The greasy, stinking Land Cruiser, with its screeching fan belt and goatskin water jug swinging off the back, beat a fast pace across the desert in rebel-held Darfur, until it slammed to a jarring stop.

Riding on the roof was Issac, an energetic sharpshooter from the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA). He had spotted the target. The Land Cruiser, haphazardly camouflaged with black spray paint, rested quietly for a moment. Issac looked down the sight of his AK-47 rifle. He fired, the crackle of gunshots echoing through the silent desert.

Haron Osman Ali, left, and other rebels with the Sudanese Liberation Army pass the time just across the border from Chad near their base in Bahai. The rebels are unequipped and untrained.

_____Photo Gallery_____
Refusing to Silence Their Guns: A week spent traveling showed the Sudanese Liberation Army to be a disorganized group, but not lacking motivation.
_____Crisis in Sudan_____
Q&A: Darfur A brief explanation of the issues and current humanitarian situation in Western Sudan.
Photos: Sudan's Rebels
Sudanese Decry U.N. Threat of Sanctions (The Washington Post, Sep 20, 2004)
U.N. Puts Sudan Sanctions Into Play (The Washington Post, Sep 19, 2004)
Death Rates in Darfur Rising, WHO Says (The Washington Post, Sep 15, 2004)
U.S. Calls Killings In Sudan Genocide (The Washington Post, Sep 10, 2004)
U.S. Drafts Resolution On Sudan Sanctions (The Washington Post, Sep 9, 2004)
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In the distance, a gentle antelope broke for the bush. The famished rebel forces spent the next 45 minutes and nine shots chasing down the swift creature through thorny bushes and thick sand before catching their prey.

Finding food is a matter of survival for thousands of people in this vast area of Sudan, including the warring troops who are fueling a raging humanitarian crisis. Armed conflict in Darfur has left 1.2 million people homeless, 50,000 dead and hundreds of thousands vulnerable to life-threatening diseases.

International condemnation has focused on the government-backed militia known as the Janjaweed, which has terrorized civilians in areas where armed resistance to the state has been strongest. Less attention has been devoted to the SLA rebels, who said they started the conflict to defend the rights of Darfur's African tribes but now preside over corners of acute suffering and desperation on the frontiers of Africa's largest country.

A week spent traveling through rebel-held areas showed the SLA to be an ill-equipped, untrained and disorganized group, with child fighters among its ragtag ranks. Its grand ambitions are not matched by its resources. The only thing the rebels don't seem to be lacking is motivation.

"Give us 500 cars with mounted machine guns and we'll take Khartoum in one month," proclaimed Bahar Ibrahim, a top adviser in the SLA's political wing, referring to Sudan's capital. A graying wisp of man, Ibrahim said over sugary tea at a base camp in the town of Bahai that he admired the ferocity of American action movies and spaghetti westerns. "We can act like that," he said.

Yet on that steamy afternoon, the rebels in the SUV weren't able even to cross a riverbed that had swollen with slow-moving water from seasonal rainfall. At the base camp, they had five cars, all taken in battle from the government. Not one of them would start.

While the Janjaweed is united by ethnic hatred toward African tribes, SLA leaders speak with equal ferocity about the Arab government in Khartoum, which they say has discriminated against generations of black Africans. They see themselves as heroes defending the lives of tribal members who have not fled to disease-ridden camps that the government runs.

As a result, SLA leaders, like the commanders of the Janjaweed, refuse to silence their guns. Peace talks in Nigeria between SLA rebels and the government stalled last week, as the sides argued over who scuttled attempts at a cease-fire.

In the last week, 3,000 people have fled more fighting in the town of Zam Zam in North Darfur, a U.N. report said. It was not clear if rebels or Janjaweed sparked the clashes. The United Nations had set an Aug. 30 deadline for the government to improve safety conditions and rein in Janjaweed or face unspecified sanctions.

The U.S. government is pressing for sanctions unless the militias are brought under control, while some members of the U.N. Security Council say that Sudan should be given more time. On Thursday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is scheduled to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the findings of a U.S. investigation into whether genocide is being committed in Darfur.

Meanwhile, civilians continue to suffer. The rebels are accused of atrocities, although on a much smaller scale than the Janjaweed and its government sponsors. The rebels control a vast countryside where an estimated 130,000 civilians are beyond the reach of food and medical aid that those in the government-held areas are slowly receiving.

The SLA hadn't planned to gain so much ground so quickly. The group claimed its first major victory last year in the stunning capture of the town of El Fasher. The rebels killed 75 government soldiers, stole weapons and destroyed four helicopter gunships and two Antonov aircraft, government officials said. A second, smaller rebel group called the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) joined the fight against the government.

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