Sudan's Offensive Comes at Key Time

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 5, 2006

KHARTOUM, Sudan, Sept. 4 -- The Sudanese government has dramatically intensified the war in Darfur in a bid to finish off a tenacious, three-year-old rebellion before a U.N. peacekeeping force can deploy there, say analysts, rebels and officials from the African Union monitoring mission.

Four months after what was hailed as a groundbreaking peace deal was signed in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, bombing raids on villages and increasingly aggressive ground attacks are allowing government forces to drive back rebels while also pushing tens of thousands of civilians into already overflowing camps.

The African Union's 7,000-member monitoring force, meanwhile, has been threatened with expulsion by the government and, under its current mandate, is scheduled to end its mission in Darfur by month's end. Many humanitarian groups have curtailed operations there because of the dangers presented by the new fighting.

Aid groups warn that conditions could grow far worse without the African Union's moderating influence and ability to provide crucial, if limited, protection for humanitarian operations such as food delivery and health care. Even with the African Union force in place, 12 humanitarian workers have been killed since the peace deal was signed May 5, including an International Rescue Committee nurse killed in fighting Friday.

The U.N. Security Council last week approved a peacekeeping force of up to 22,500 that would take the place of the African Union troops, but Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has sought to block it from being deployed. Two students were killed and 10 wounded in the North Darfur capital of El Fasher on Monday as troops violently dispersed a rally supporting the deployment of a U.N. force, news reports said.

The new push by government forces and the uncertainty surrounding peacekeeping efforts could produce a fundamental shift in the fighting in Darfur, where violence and disease have left as many as 450,000 people dead and 2 million homeless. Aid workers say that in recent weeks, civilian casualties, rapes and looting have grown more widespread. Tens of thousands of Darfuris have surged into camps, voting with their feet against a peace deal that many there regard as deeply flawed.

"There is no peace at all," said rebel leader Abubakar Hamid Nur, speaking by phone from North Darfur, the center of recent fighting. "There is a new phase of atrocities happening. . . . What they did in Abuja is not a sustainable peace."

Rebel leaders say they are mounting counterattacks where possible, but they acknowledge that they are giving up ground rather than face thousands of fresh, heavily armed government troops who have replaced the irregular militias that served as proxy fighters for much of the conflict. Some former rebels are now fighting on the side of the government and militias, giving the combined force unprecedented firepower along with detailed knowledge of treacherous mountain terrain.

Analysts say the growing offensive has left the anti-government forces in a precarious position at a time when flows of fuel and materiel from neighboring Chad have slowed as well.

"They might actually be defeated militarily this time," Ted Dagne, an Africa analyst for the Congressional Research Service, said from Washington. "The balance of power is going to shift in favor of the government. . . . What they want is to change the reality on the ground to make irrelevant the deployment of the international force."

Only one of three rebel groups signed the peace deal in May, and the two that vowed to continue fighting have joined forces against the government. The one group that signed, headed by Minni Minawi, meanwhile, has splintered, with some of its men fighting on behalf of the government and others against it. Minawi has joined Bashir's government as a senior official.

The fracturing of rebel groups has been so widespread and complex that even close observers of the conflict say it is no longer possible to say who controls much of the countryside in a vast, nearly roadless terrain the size of Texas.

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