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Sudan: Government Offensive Threatens Darfur Civilians

New Attacks Underscore Need for More Sanctions and Protection Force

The Sudanese government has launched a new military offensive in South Darfur that is placing civilians at grave risk, Human Rights Watch said today.

An April 24 attack on a village in rebel-controlled territory used Antonov aircraft and helicopter gunships indiscriminately in violation of the laws of war, and displaced thousands of civilians who had sought safety there. The attack occurred just a week before an April 30 deadline for peace talks to end in Abuja, Nigeria. Two other villages in the area have also been attacked in the past 10 days. On April 25, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution placing four Sudanese individuals involved in the armed conflict on a sanctions list for international travel bans and asset freezes.

“Khartoum’s new attacks on civilians show the Security Council needs to move quickly on a U.N. protection force for Darfur,” said Peter Takirambudde, Africa director for Human Rights Watch. “They also show that the sanctions, while welcome, may not hit hard enough – or high enough – and civilians will continue to pay the price.”

The April 24 attack on Joghana village appears to be part of a broader government offensive in South Darfur with the apparent aim of consolidating territory prior to an African Union deadline of April 30 for concluding peace negotiations. The area, 110 kilometers southeast of the South Darfur capital, Nyala, has long been a flashpoint, pitting the government and Janjaweed militia against two rebel forces. The rebel groups have also sometimes fought each other there. All parties have contributed to ethnic polarization and massive civilian displacement in the area.

According to eyewitness reports, government forces and militias began attacking Joghana at 7 a.m. on April 24. Civilians who fled the town said that an Antonov plane and two helicopter gunships were used and that the Antonov dropped bombs that killed civilians, although the numbers of dead and injured could not be verified.

Thousands of displaced persons were living in Joghana, controlled by the rebel Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), after fleeing earlier attacks on their villages. Joghana is approximately 10 kilometers from Greida, another town under SLA control, where at least 80,000 displaced persons have sought shelter.

“If the Sudanese government continues this offensive then Greida is likely to be the next target,” said Takirambudde. “Civilians there, particularly those who share the ethnicity of the rebel groups, could be in grave danger.”

The rebel groups – the SLA and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) – have both been active in the Greida area over the past year despite an African Union demand that the SLA withdraw its forces from Greida town, where A.U. forces have a base.

Greida’s strategic location, on the main road from Nyala south to Buram, has made it and surrounding villages a focal point for armed clashes over the past six months. Since November 2005, Human Rights Watch has received reports of dozens of small and large attacks by government-backed militias on villages around Greida in which thousands of civilians have been displaced and lost their remaining livestock and other property. Rebel forces have reportedly attacked other villages in the area in reprisal. Since January 2006, eyewitnesses have reported a massive presence of pro-government militia around the town, and by early March 2006, at least 60 villages around Greida had suffered attacks.

The Sudanese government’s offensive on Joghana and surrounding villages resembles earlier operations in South Darfur in late 2004, when Sudanese officials claimed to be “clearing the road” around Nyala for security reasons, but instead pursued a brutal offensive aimed against civilian populations living in strategically important areas controlled by the SLA.

The current operation was clearly planned and coordinated in advance. Human Rights Watch learned from credible sources that Sudanese government officials recently informed the A.U. mission in Darfur that they intended to “clear the road” from Nyala to Buram.

“This is no random attack,” said Takirambudde. “This is the result of months of preparation by Sudanese officials and coordination with militias.”

As in other parts of Darfur, Sudanese officials have exacerbated local ethnic tensions by continuing to recruit, support and use ethnic militias in the Greida area. Sudanese authorities, including Al Haj Atta Al Mannar, the wali or governor of South Darfur, have set in place so-called reconciliation mechanisms, purportedly to ease ethnic tensions in Greida. But these efforts, which include putting known militia leaders responsible for war crimes on reconciliation committees, represent a continuing Sudanese government policy of building military alliances on an ethnic basis without regard to the harmful impact on inter-ethnic relations.

The South Darfur governor is a key figure in the network of Sudanese government-militia alliances in South Darfur, as documented in the Human Rights Watch report of December 2005, “Entrenching Impunity: Government Responsibility for International Crimes in Darfur.”

“Local officials, such as the governor of South Darfur, have played a key role in Sudan’s strategy to tear Darfur apart,” said Takirambudde. “They must be added to the U.N. sanctions list and investigated for their role in supporting and coordinating attacks on civilians.”

China, Russia, and Qatar abstained from the April 25 Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on the four Sudanese individuals, on the grounds that such an action might interfere with the A.U. peace negotiations underway in Nigeria. The four, who include two rebel commanders, the most notorious Janjaweed leader, Musa Hilal, and a former government air force officer, are to be subjected to international travel bans and asset freezes. None of the four are high-level leaders involved in the talks, and none are state governors or federal ministers who have been implicated in serious abuses.

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