(New York) - Sudanese forces and government-backed militias attacked more than a dozen villages in operations against rebel forces near Muhajariya, South Darfur, between October 5 and 17, 2008, Human Rights Watch said today. The fighting, in which more than 40 civilians were killed, shows that the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) still lacks the capacity to protect vulnerable civilians.
During the same period, President Omar al-Bashir told the media that life was "very normal in Darfur," and announced a new peace initiative with much fanfare in North Darfur.
"Once again, civilians are bearing the brunt of fighting in Darfur, and the peacekeepers cannot protect them," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Life in Darfur is far from ‘normal.'"
According to local sources, government-backed "Janjaweed" militias attacked more than 13 villages and settlements around Muhajariya, 80 kilometers east of Nyala, the capital of South Darfur, killing more than 40 civilians, burning homes, and stealing livestock. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that armed Janjaweed on horses and camels surrounded villages and were followed by government forces in vehicles mounted with weapons.
Muhajariya has long been a stronghold for the Minni Minawi faction of the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) and has been attacked many times over the course of the Darfur conflict.
Human Rights Watch has not been able to determine whether government forces clashed with rebels during these attacks. On October 5 and 7, government forces and Janjaweed attacked Sineit village, 16 kilometers southeast of Muhajariya, killing nine civilians. On October 6, Janjaweed attacked Brangal village, 12 kilometers northeast of Muhajariya, resulting in seven civilian deaths. On October 8, they attacked Kilekile and villages in the Mijelit area, northwest of Sineit, resulting in an unconfirmed number of deaths. Rebels from Unity faction of the SLA reported that they clashed with government and Janjaweed forces only after the initial attacks, between October 13 and 17.
As a result of the attacks, thousands of villagers fled to the towns of Muhajariya and Shearia, and have yet to return home. Reliable sources reported more than 40 casualties from the attacks and fighting. However, the full extent and circumstances of civilian casualties remain largely unknown. After gunmen shot at a UNAMID convoy on October 14, UNAMID forces have not tried to enter the area. In recent months, UNAMID has increasingly become the target of attacks and banditry, including in South Darfur. The mission has deployed less than half of the 26,000 military and police mandated by UN Security Council Resolution on July 31, 2007, and is still missing critical equipment, including attack helicopters.
On July 14, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court requested an arrest warrant for President al-Bashir for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur. Since then, Sudan has repeatedly tried to persuade other countries that the security situation on the ground in Darfur is improving, with the aim of securing a suspension of the case against al-Bashir by the UN Security Council.
"President Bashir's claims about the situation in Darfur should convince no one," said Gagnon. "But whether or not the fighting continues, the victims of past atrocities deserve to see those responsible prosecuted."
Human Rights Watch called on UNAMID to conduct a prompt and thorough investigation into the Muhajariya attacks and urged all parties to the conflict to take all feasible measures to avoid loss of civilian life and property and to ensure that the civilian population has access to humanitarian assistance.