Rebels Say They May Abandon Darfur Pact
Thursday, September 14, 2006
GRAI Commanders from the only rebel group that signed a peace accord in May for Sudan's Darfur region are prepared to resume fighting if African Union peacekeeping troops leave as scheduled at month's end and are not replaced by a United Nations force, according to more than a dozen senior rebel officials interviewed Wednesday.
Rebel commanders predicted that such a resumption of combat would spell the end of Darfur's tattered peace agreement and quickly escalate fighting to an intensity not seen since the early days of the conflict in 2003 and 2004.
Their comments came as the African Union force of 7,000 is preparing to depart and as Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir is vigorously resisting pressure to allow a U.N. peacekeeping force of up to 22,500 to enter the country, threatening to attack them if they try. At a meeting scheduled for Sept. 18, officials of the 53-country African Union are to reconsider their decision to withdraw their soldiers
Abdulrahaman Abdallah, a commander of the rebel group's military police, said that without a strong international force here, "the government will go back to its strategy, which is genocide, and inevitably we will go back to the bush."
Since the fighting began in 2003, war and disease have killed as many as 450,000 people in Darfur and driven more than 2 million from their homes. Sudan's impoverished western flank has become a patchwork of military positions and ragged camps for families displaced by war.
The peace deal, brokered in part by U.S. officials in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, was supposed to end the fighting between the Sudanese government and the three rebel groups active here. But only one group, led by Minni Minnawi, signed. Those that did not complained that the government provided insufficient restitution and that the agreement did not provide a reliable means to enforce its terms.
The government vowed to end the conflict through the use of nearly 30,000 soldiers and police officers, who are gradually augmenting the government-backed militias known as the Janjaweed that have been terrorizing civilians in Darfur.
Since the peace accord was signed, rebel forces allied with Minnawi have been assisting in some government military operations, often providing crucial on-the-ground intelligence, but his commanders are increasingly reluctant to help.
The commanders interviewed Wednesday said they were so angry about recent attacks on civilians, including the bombing of villages by Antonov planes and rocket attacks by Mi-24 helicopter gunships, that they were prepared to abandon the peace deal. They said they would not be swayed even if Minnawi decided to keep his senior job with the government in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.
His group, while having less political support than the most popular rebel group in Darfur, was widely regarded as the most potent fighting force among the rebels. It remains strong in Darfur's southern and western areas.
"It's not our desire to go back to the bush, but if there is no choice, we will go," said rebel Gen. Ali Marmar, speaking in Graida, a rebel stronghold in South Darfur. Marmar said Minnawi would be replaced if he broke with the will of his commanders: "We have thousands like Minni."
The conflict began with attacks on police and military outposts by mostly non-Arab rebels who claimed discrimination by the Arab-dominated government. At issue are ancient disputes over grazing rights and land claims but, more broadly, the political and economic dispossession of a poor and nearly roadless region the size of Texas.