Splintering of Rebel Groups Adds to Chaos in Darfur

Rebel commander Abu Algasim Ahmed Mohammed patrols one of the largest displacement camps in the world, outside Gereida, Sudan.
Rebel commander Abu Algasim Ahmed Mohammed patrols one of the largest displacement camps in the world, outside Gereida, Sudan. (By Stephanie Mccrummen -- The Washington Post)
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 1, 2007

GEREIDA, Sudan -- The quasi-rebel group ostensibly controlling this desert town of displaced thousands is called SLM-Minni, which stands for Sudan Liberation Movement, Minni Minnawi faction.

In the increasingly perplexing world of rebel politics in Darfur, SLM-Minni is not to be confused with SLM-Free Will, SLM-Unity or Greater-SLM, whose leader was a spokesman for SLM-Minni until he became disillusioned and left to form his own group.

The Minni faction is not to be lumped together with G-19, an umbrella group under the umbrella of the National Redemption Front, which has yet to draw in the somewhat moribund granddaddy of all Darfur rebel groups, SLM-Al Nur, whose founder, Abdul Wahid al-Nur, recently attempted to clarify matters by phone from his apartment in Paris.

"There is only SLM, led by me, al-Nur," he said, sounding a bit irritated. "There was G-19, but they are back under my leadership. . . . Many of Minni's commanders are back to me. There is no factionalization in SLM. The government creates these factions."

The situation is complicated, but there is a growing sense that the biggest obstacles to peace in Darfur are not only the Sudanese government and its militias, but the Darfur rebels themselves.

After four years of conflict, the western region of Sudan has become fragmented among at least a dozen rebel groups, a development that leaders such as Nur believe is the product of a clever divide-and-conquer strategy by the government but that others say is the result of clashing egos within the movement.

An array of foreign diplomats have shifted their efforts from pressuring the government to encouraging rebel unity. The United Nations, for example, recently airlifted 300 rebel commanders to a meeting place in Darfur where they were to decide on a military structure. The conference was delayed twice because the government bombed the area, and it finally fell apart amid internecine quarreling.

Officials monitoring the region and aid groups say that as the rebel groups splinter, they are increasingly moonlighting as roving bandits, attacking humanitarian organizations, African Union soldiers and whoever else might have the coveted trucks and satellite phones that are the means to power in this rugged region.

"The danger is that if they don't get it together, we're going to end up with a bunch of warlords," said one U.S. official in the region, who, like many people interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. "The factionalization is indicative of the priority they put on their own personal positions, rather than on Darfur."

The conflict started in 2003 when three main rebel groups with similar grievances rose up against the central government in Khartoum, accusing it of hoarding power and wealth at Darfur's expense. The government responded by bombing villages and arming a militia, known as the Janjaweed. Since then, as many as 450,000 people have died from violence and disease and 2.5 million have been displaced.

The rebels and the government entered into negotiations last year. But as the Darfur Peace Agreement was being finalized last spring, rebel leaders unhappy with the deal began breaking off.

There are now at least a dozen factions, a number that sometimes rises and falls in the course of a single day, according to a U.N. security official.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company