Sudan’s army on Monday accused Darfur rebels of ambushing U.N.-African Union peacekeepers and said it had taken control of a central rebel stronghold in the restive west of Africa’s largest country.
A force of around 60 joint U.N.-African Union (UNAMID) peacekeepers was ambushed on Friday and held for 24 hours by unidentified armed men in Jabel Marra, which for years has been a rebel-controlled area.
“They were attacked in Jabel Marra and rebels took from them 53 guns, seven cars and seven large artillery,” Sudan’s armed forces spokesman al-Sawarmi Khaled told Reuters.
“We are now completely in control of Jabel Marra,” he added. “There are some small groups of rebels here and there but we are in overall control.”
The army had previously denied it was fighting with Darfur rebels in Jabel Marra, but on Monday Khaled said they had clashed there with “small criminal gangs blocking roads.”
The Darfur rebel Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) loyal to founder Abdel Wahed Mohamed el-Nur denied the army was in control of the area they have claimed since the conflict began in early 2003. They also denied any involvement in the ambush.
“This is the thousandth time (President Omar Hassan al)Bashir has claimed to have won the battle in Darfur and… this is totally untrue,” SLM commander Ibrahim el-Helu told Reuters from Paris, where Nur is based.
Sudan’s army also questioned how UNAMID lost its vehicles, weapons, money and communications equipment without a fight.
“How a 61-man force with 3 vehicles of soldiers — how could they hand over all these things without any battle or any exchange of fire? This contradicts totally with military logic,” the spokesman said.
UNAMID were not immediately able to comment but have previously denied army accusations that they have supported Darfur rebels.
Last month Khartoum signed a ceasefire agremeent with the most militarily powerful of Darfur’s divided rebel groups, the Justice and Equality Movement. But other rebel groups criticised the deal.
The United Nations estimates some 300,000 people died in Darfur’s humanitarian crisis sparked by a brutal counter-insurgency campaign in 2003 to quell rebels demanding more of a share in wealth and power.
More than 2 million were driven from their homes and the International Criminal Court last year issued an arrest warrant for Bashir for war crimes in Sudan’s west.