Civilians in Darfur are bearing the brunt of escalating fighting between the Government of Sudan and rebel factions, Human Rights Watch said today. The organization called on both the Government of Sudan and rebel factions to cease attacks on civilians and ensure they are protected.

Thousands of civilians were displaced following recent attacks between October 4-8 on the towns of Haskanita and Muhajaria, weeks before the warring parties are scheduled to meet in Tripoli for a new round of peace talks.

“This is not the first time we’ve seen the warring parties talking about peace while launching new attacks on civilians,” said Peter Takirambudde, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The lack of concern for the civilian population is appalling.”

On September 29, 2007, rebel forces killed 10 African Union peacekeepers in Haskanita, in North Darfur. Government forces quickly took control of the area, and on October 4, the entire town was burned to the ground and at least 10 civilians were killed.

Four days later, the town of Muhajariya, 120 kilometers to the west of Haskanita, was attacked, reportedly by pro-government militia backed by heavy weaponry. According to press reports, more than 20 civilians were wounded in the attack, but unconfirmed estimates put the number significantly higher. Thousands of others have been forced to flee the area.

There are credible reports that Sudanese aircraft were seen in the area. The Sudanese government, which has denied deploying aircraft to support the attack, has repeatedly violated its own commitment to cease “offensive overflights” in Darfur.

Muhajariya is a stronghold of the former rebel faction leader Minni Minawi, the main rebel signatory to the May 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement, who is now nominally part of the Government of Sudan. The government, Minni Minnawi’s SLA faction, and many other rebel factions have publicly committed to attending peace talks in Libya on October 27.

These latest clashes seem to be part of an ongoing trend. In a September 2007 report, “Darfur 2007: Chaos by Design,” Human Rights Watch describes how the situation in Darfur has evolved in the last year from a relatively straightforward conflict between rebels and the government into a violent scramble for power and resources involving government forces, Janjaweed militia, rebels and former rebels, and bandits, with civilians, peacekeepers, and humanitarian aid workers caught in the crossfire.