KHARTOUM, Sudan, Nov. 23 -- Government helicopters and warplanes bombed the town of Tawila in North Darfur on Tuesday after rebel fighters attacked police stations there Monday, said U.N. officials, who accused both sides of breaking a renewed cease-fire that had lasted just under two weeks.
The fighting began Sunday when Arab militia fighters known as the Janjaweed refused to pay for livestock in the market there, aid workers said. Rebel forces attacked the Janjaweed and police stations Monday, said Jan Pronk, the U.N. special envoy to Sudan.
_____Crisis in Sudan_____
Q&A: Darfur A brief explanation of the issues and current humanitarian situation in Western Sudan.
Photos: Sudan's Rebels
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Rebel Attacks Raise Tensions in Darfur (The Washington Post, Nov 21, 2004)
In Sudan, a Sense of Abandonment (The Washington Post, Nov 16, 2004)
U.S. Urges Aid to Spur Peace in Sudan (The Washington Post, Nov 15, 2004)
During the clashes on Monday, 45 aid workers, including 30 from Save the Children U.K., fled into the bush to hide and were later airlifted to El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur, by African Union helicopters.
Save the Children U.K. said government warplanes had dropped at least one bomb about 50 yards from one of its feeding centers.
Between 20 and 30 police officers were killed along with six civilians when the rebel group carried out a dawn attack, U.N. officials said. No one was sure of the total number killed in both days of fighting.
The rebel militia, the Sudanese Liberation Army, has taken control of Tawila, a strategically important mountain town located between rebel headquarters in the Jebel Marra Mountains, southwest of El Fasher, and the homeland of the Janjaweed around Kabkabiya, 90 miles west of El Fasher. U.N. officials condemned both sides and said the violence did not bode well for the future of Darfur. The rebels and government have violated a cease-fire signed this month in Abuja, Nigeria, in which the rebels agreed to stop fighting and the government agreed to halt aerial bombardment.
"To our eyes, there is no justification [for] the violation of the cease-fire," Pronk said in a strongly worded statement. "The parties should understand that the recent aggression goes directly against the spirit and the letter of the Abuja protocols."
As a result of the fighting, the U.N. stopped all movement outside El Fasher and withdrew all staff from Abu Shouk camp, home to 80,000 Africans driven from their homes during the 21-month conflict between a government-backed militia and African rebels.
Brig. Gen. Festus Okonkwo, a Nigerian officer who heads the African Union mission in Darfur, said the union was investigating the attacks and could not confirm the bombings.
"We do know that the fighting is very serious," Okonkwo said.
The government and the rebels accused each other of attacking first and said they had the right to defend themselves.
Sudan's interior minister, Gen. Abdel Raheem Mohamed Hussein, said that 29 police officers had been killed Monday and that the government would continue fighting. He denied that any bombs were dropped but said government troops were defending the town.
"What goes on in Abuja does not affect what's happening on the ground," Raheem said. "I think the rebels are now trying to gain ground and make footsteps in our cities. They want to create chaos and ring alarms to the displaced people who want to return home. . . . So now, we are re-ordering ourselves and protecting ourselves."
Abdou Abdullah, a leader of the Sudanese Liberation Army and member of the African Union's cease-fire commission, said the 1.5 million Africans displaced in squalid camps were driven from their land by the government and its proxy Janjaweed militia.
He said people would not return home because they were afraid of government attacks. He also said the rebels attacked police officers in order to defend civilians in the market.
"It's the government and their militia that continue to harass the citizens of Darfur, not the other way around," Abdullah said. "We were defending our people against constant harassment and then we mobilized our forces to take the town."
The fighting in Tawila is part of an upsurge in violence across the region. On Monday, six police officers and three rebels were killed when rebel forces attacked a police station at the crowded Kalma camp in South Darfur.
Some aid workers said the attacks were reprisals sparked by police abuses in the nearby al-Jeer Sureaf camp, where residents were tear-gassed and beaten this month before being forcibly moved to another camp.
"It's the same dismal pattern," said Barry Came, a spokesman for the World Food Program. "They reach cease-fire agreements, and before the ink dries, they are violated."
Fighting broke out in February 2003 when African tribes rebelled against the Arab-led government. In retaliation, the United Nations said the government has bombed villages and armed the Janjaweed, while tens of thousands of people have died from hunger, disease and violence.