KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudan’s army said on Wednesday it had captured a strategic Darfur town after three weeks of clashes with rebels that U.N. officials say have killed at least 30 people and forced thousands of civilians to flee.
Fighting has escalated in the build-up to a decision by the International Criminal Court on whether to issue an arrest warrant against Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on charges of masterminding war crimes in Darfur.
Sudan’s army spokesman told the state news agency Suna that his forces had entered Muhajiriya, 80 km (50 miles) from the south Darfur capital of Nyala, and were pursuing fighters from the insurgent Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).
“The Armed Forces have ... captured Muhajiriya area from the rebel Justice and Equality Movement and is pursuing the fleeing remnants of the rebel movements,” the spokesman said.
Joint U.N./African Union peacekeepers said their forces in the town heard gunfire and the sound of three bombs falling around the town during the day.
“Civilians from the market converged on the UNAMID camp and they are still coming,” said UNAMID communications chief Kemal Saiki.
UNAMID had promised to stay in Muhajiriya to protect 30,000 civilians, half of whom are residents, half Darfuris displaced from earlier clashes in the near six-year conflict.
Hundreds of women and children who fled fighting in the town over the past three weeks had also started arriving at displacement camps, many of them hundreds of miles away in north Darfur, UNAMID said in a statement.
International experts say 200,000 have died and 2.7 million been driven from their homes since mostly non-Arab rebels in Darfur took up arms against Sudan’s government in 2003, accusing Khartoum of neglecting the region’s development. Khartoum says 10,000 have died.
JEM seized control in mid-January of Muhajiriya from troops loyal to Minni Arcua Minnawi, the only Darfur rebel leader to sign a peace deal with Khartoum in 2006.
Sudan’s government says the rebel group is building up forces in the region to mark the expected International Criminal Court’s decision with a major attack on a city or oil field.
JEM commander Suleiman Sandal denied the group had been pushed out of Muhajiriya, saying it had withdrawn voluntarily to spare the population from government air attacks.
“We felt that the government would continue to bomb the civilians while we were there. So we withdrew a long distance from the town,” he told Reuters.
He denied the reports JEM was being pursued.
The U.S. envoy to the United Nations Susan Rice said on Tuesday the United States was gravely concerned about reports of government bombardment around Muhajiriya.
U.N. Security Council resolutions ban air attacks in Darfur but Sudan’s army has said it has the right to confront forces like JEM who have not signed peace accords with the government.
Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who has just become chairman of the African Union, told reporters on Wednesday he would take responsibility for solving the long-running conflict in Darfur.
“It is my duty to step in and try to solve this,” he told a news conference at the end of an AU summit in Ethiopia.
Additional reporting by Daniel Wallis in Addis Ababa